Gangtok: So far, Sikkim is the only state in the country without a single reported positive case of COVID 19. This is largely due to two factors: early preparedness and discipline.
While the rest of the world was arguing over the legitimacy of the pandemic, Sikkim had authorised screening of all individuals entering the HimalayansState as early as January 29 with over 6 lakh individuals screened as of April 18. The same has paid dividends – after 80 samples were sent for testing, all results came back as negative.This is despite the fact that the state does not have its own COVID-19 testing lab or viral lab, which has been one of the foremost demands of the state to the Centre.
Now, the state is prepared to partially lift the lockdown from April 20 on, while keeping its borders sealed and imposing a ban on inter and intra-state travel till May 3.
Sikkim was best suited to fight the pandemic owing to its landlocked geography but the same posed a threat since Sikkim has three countries as its neighbours – China in the north, Nepal in the west and Bhutan in the east.
“With the virus outbreak in China and its early spread in Nepal in January, Sikkim sealed its borders specifically the Nathu La border with China, putting an embargo on locals, domestic and foreign tourists from visiting border regions. We also laid focus on sealing the porous borders with Nepal in the West keeping only two borders at Rangpo and Melli as entry and exit points with West Bengal,” chief minister Prem Singh Golay said.
With the virus steadily making its entry into the country, the state administration deputed health professionals at its borders for thermal screening, along with the state police to keep a strict vigil on Sikkimese people returning to the state from various cities of the country. The self-declaration on travel history was a pre-requisite for anyone wishing to come back home. Irrespective of citizens having foreign travel history or not, the state quarantined returning individuals for 14 to 28 days.
With the declaration of the pandemic, the state banned foreign travellers as early as March 5 and subsequently domestic tourists on March 17.
The lockdown declared by the state came at a time when tourism season – the state’s economic backbone – was at its peak. To put things into perspective, in March 2019, there was an inflow of 1,18,000 tourists in Sikkim.
Despite the lockdown being imposed, the state has a major dependency on the rest of the country for essential commodities, medical aids and testing labs. The state health department had been sending its samples to Kolkata and Guwahati initially, but with the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital opening its COVID-19 lab in Siliguri, the samples were ferried 120 km away. The COVID-19 lab in the state is currently under construction and will only be functional in the next three months.
Alarms were raised when the neighbouring Kalimpong district in North Bengal reported its first COVID-19 positive death in the first week of April. Subsequently, six other positive cases came up in the district town, 70 km away from Gangtok. This prompted the Sikkim health department to track down 320 other passengers who had commuted on the same flight as the Kalimpong patient from Chennai to Bagdogra in late March.
“We tracked down a dozen people who had deboarded from the flight towards Sikkim, all of them were traced within 24 hours. We found out that six people were under home quarantine while six others had been placed in the government facility quarantine. We had a devoted surveillance team inclusive of doctors and medical practitioners along with police and administration for tracking of patients hiding their travel history. The local people in villages also took up the task of informing officials of such violators and we were able to track down many who had been hiding their travel history, subsequently putting them under quarantine,” stated Sikkim Health Director General Dr. Pempa Tshering Bhutia.
With positive cases rising in North Bengal and migrant workers taking to the roads across the country, Sikkim police took up the task of sealing its borders all along the Kalimpong border and Rangpo river belt with concertina wires.
“We are sealing the borders not merely for our safety, but also to keep our neighbours safe. There is dependency on either regions of the border for basic essential items to even social exchanges, but sealing the borders keeps both the regions safe. µigrant workers in Sikkim also attempted to cross the border to reach for their homes, but we returned them from Rangpo as we must not put pressure on Bengal as well. The rules are strict under the NDMA act and there is a precursor to remain wherever you are and not move about,” stated DIG Range Sonam Tenzing Bhutia.
The implementation of the rules at the borders has been so strict that a reported case of a high court judge in the state, who secured an e-pass from the East District administration, was cancelled when it was learned that he was using his vehicle to ferry his family members from West Bengal to Sikkim. The Sub-Divisional Magistrate at Rangpo border intervened in the matter and the vehicle returned empty.
Further, all vehicles bringing essential commodities and medical aid to the state are being sanitised before making their journey inward. Transit camps for such truckers and drivers commuting from far flung states have also been set up in every district, while those from West Bengal have been strictly instructed to return on the same day after delivery.
Cumulatively, over 3,560 people have been put under quarantine at home and another 119 are at government facilities. Over 1,150 people screened at fever clinics as of April 19.
With such success, the state has considered partially lifting the lockdown. “Sikkim has a habit of welcoming anything good and new with open arms, the lockdown was well respected by the people with 99% of the people adhering to it, staying indoors all along from March 17. Now with 80 samples coming in as negative, it is safe to say that Sikkim’s fight against the pandemic has been a success and the only threat we have is from outside the state now,” said chief secretary S.C. Gupta.
The lift on the lockdown means Section 144 will still be in play till May 3 with strict prohibition on assembly of people, public transport, inter and intra-state movement. The access for border movements is allowed only to health workers and officials while most of the administration will function with one-third to half the manpower. Banks, Factories, construction works and farmers have also been given the green signal.
“Following the lift on the lockdown from May 3, there will be a huge rush of Sikkimese people stranded in other states making their way home. We have set a pre-requisite that they must register themselves under Aarogya Setu App launched by the Centre. The app will help in contact tracing while also facilitating their return to the state with a self-declaration that they are free of the virus,” stated Gupta.