Srinagar: When India reported the country’s first coronavirus case on January 30, senior officials and doctors of the union territory of Ladakh met the next day to assess preparations to combat the infectious disease.
Their concerns were driven by the fact that hundreds of people on an annual pilgrimage to Iran – one of the worst affected countries – were scheduled to return in the next few weeks.
After a detailed meeting, the administration ordered screening of every person entering Ladakh. The only mode of connectivity to the isolated region was air travel since Srinagar-Leh road, the only surface link, had been closed down in November following heavy snowfall.
On February 28, a 68-year-old pilgrim from Chuchot-Yokam village of Leh district, after his return to home, developed COVID-19 symptoms. By the time his final report on March 6 confirmed him positive for coronavirus the administration had already isolated his entire family and sealed the village.
In the next few days, the number of cases crossed the double-digit. It led to panic in the region, having limited healthcare facilities. “But despite these cases, we knew things were under control,” said Dr T. Samphel, medical superintendent of Sonam Nurboo Memorial Hospital, Leh.
In less than a month, the region has turned the tide in its favour in the battle against the coronavirus, at a time when the entire world is struggling with a rapid rise in the cases.
Only one person has tested positive for COVID-19 in Ladakh in the past 21 days. Of the total 14 patients, 10 have tested negative and have been shifted from the hospital while four others are on the path to recovery.
“It is satisfying that we have been able to control the spread (of infection), but the battle is not over yet,” said Dr Samphel.
Medics attribute the near-to-zero-fall in the cases to a slew of measures, backed by people’s support. Aggressive testing, mass contact tracing, use of social media to spread awareness and early lockdown of the hotspot zones has helped the administration to put the lid on the disease.
Though the region, with 2.74 lakh population, does not have a COVID-19 lab, it ensured testing of 612 persons in the past one month, highest in the country in terms of population ratio, according to another doctor. The neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir with a population of 1.22 crore has only tested 900 people.
The official data shows 2,672 people, including 690 persons with travel history to Iran and China were quarantined. “We traced all contacts of the positive cases. Their immediate family members were tested and hospital quarantined while others were home quarantined,” said the doctor.
The early lockdown of Chuchot ensured the infection was not allowed to spread. Of the total 11 cases from the Leh, the village with a population of 1,800 souls reported 10 cases, indicating it could have become a coronavirus hotspot.
“When the final reports of six other family members of the first patient confirmed they too were positive, it was a setback. But at the same time we were relieved that the decision to separate the family and lockdown the village averted a disaster,” said the doctor.
The lockdown was extended to another Leh village with one COVID-19 case, besides two villages of Kargil district which have reported three cases – the latest one on April 2.
Divisional commissioner Ladakh, Sauigat Biswas said aggressive use of social media to reach out to people with health advisories in locally translated languages helped the cause. “We used Facebook and other platforms to disseminate information in the form of audios, videos, and talk shows. We even set up WhatsApp groups within the community and involved local Panchayats,” said Biswas, adding people’s cooperation proved to be a decisive factor in the battle.
Ladakh being sparsely populated and geographically isolated region proved advantageous, said another official. “It took us less time to reach out to the entire population. Every face is known to everybody here. Even if a man from one locality enters another, an alert is sounded. No one can escape our vigil,” he said.
The doctors, however, say they cannot afford to lower the guard. More than 1,000 pilgrims, including 260 who had tested positive for COVID-19 in Iran, are yet to return. Most of them have been flown to India and quarantined at different facilities set up in Rajasthan and Delhi.
“We are now preparing for the next battle,” said the doctor, referring to these pilgrims. “Once they return, all of them will be quarantined, even if it means an extended quarantine period,” he said. “We can hardly afford to take any chance.”