This is the first piece in a series titled “The Rural Front Line,” by Yogesh Jain and Naman Shah, about the COVID-19 pandemic. Jain and Shah are both doctors working with Jan Swasthya Sahyog, a public-health initiative based in rural Chhattisgarh. Over the course of the series, they will address the issues they witness on the ground while dealing with the virus, and discuss how policy decisions affect the lives of India’s rural residents.
On the first day of a three-week nationwide lockdown, Jan Swasthya Sahyog’s hospital, in Ganiyari village of Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur district, remained largely empty. In a place like Ganiyari, an empty hospital does not mean that less people are ill; it means the ill are simply not getting medical care. At 8 pm on 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, effective from midnight. With just four hours’ notice, the lockdown left both the JSS and its patients unprepared to face the many problems it created.
JSS is a community-based health programme in rural Chhattisgarh that was founded in 1996 by a group of postgraduate students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. Over the twenty years since the hospital at Ganiyari was set up, JSS became an integral component of public health for patients from across rural Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, providing care for over fifty thousand patients per year. Working in a region marked by deprivation, JSS provides preventive, primary and complex healthcare where little else exists. The 100 beds at the hospital are permanently oversubscribed, and families lie sleeping throughout the corridors as the healthcare demand tragically requires several days of waiting just to be seen. The consequences of the national lockdown in such an institution are grave and may be irreversible.