Plagued by Malnutrition, Tribals of Jawadhi Hills at Risk of COVID
Plagued by malnutrition, the health of people in Jawadhi hills is already poor and COVID poses a bigger risk.
Video Editor: Sandeep Suman
Cameraperson & Producer: Smitha TK
The roads were winding around the steep slope giving a glimpse of villages tucked in greenery by the streams. The tribal people of Jawadhi hills, located about 210 kilometres from Chennai, have already been plagued with malnutrition and alarming infant mortality rates. The coronavirus pandemic has posed new and tougher challenges in a terrain that has very poor healthcare facilities.
Jawadhi hills of the Eastern Ghats fall in Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Tirupathur districts. There are about 80,000 people living here in 11 panchayats and 229 villages.
The Quint traveled to the hills to understand why the natives who are well aware of the severity of the pandemic, are in denial that they could get infected.
The tribes here are predominantly called Malayalee – Malay means hills and Yalee means rulers. The hills are famous for rosewood, teakwood, sandalwood and herbs.
COVID Not Here, They Believe
A 12-year-old from Thathankuppam village described coronavirus as ‘a disease that can travel through air but Jawadhi is free of it because they live close to nature’. Several kids also said they didn’t know why people wore masks as they’ve never worn one even when there were COVID cases reported.
Mahalakshmi, a teacher working at a primary school in Jamunamarathur told The Quint that she along with other teachers have been visiting villages to educate the people about the deadly virus and the urgent need to take the vaccine.
“Everyone is roaming around in the village like before (COVID). When my students see me wearing a mask, they would ask me to take it off,” she said.
In April, 50 to 100 COVID-19 cases were being reported every day, which came down to five to eight cases by mid-June. As of 24 June 2021, there are 19 active cases in Jawadhi hills.
Healthcare: An Inaccessible and Unaffordable Luxury
There are only three public health centres in the 80-kilometre stretch of the hills. With only eight medical officers and a few other technical staff, these centres are burdened with many cases.
During the pandemic, these centres worked as first line treatment centres for COVID. So a person who requires an oxygen bed will have to travel for 80 to 100kms to Tiruvannamalai or Vellore.
Most villages are completely cut off and do not have concrete roads to reach them. There are three ambulances in the area, which the doctors use to visit villages and set up camps.
The worrying factor is that there are several other issues that plague Jawadhi hills. The infant and maternal mortality rate is five times the national average. Anaemia and lack of healthcare facilities has resulted in home delivery of babies. Over 70 percent of the babies that are born are underweight, below 2.5 kilograms.
More than 70 percent of the adults have venereal diseases. Communicable diseases like diarrhoea, jaundice, typhoid, sexual diseases, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS are quite prevalent due to poor hygiene and sanitation.
“There are a lot of typhoid cases reported here. We have observed that those who've got typhoid are more vulnerable to COVID,” said DAR Balachandran.
Shutdown of Schools Has Encouraged Child Marriages, Labour
The shutdown of schools during the lockdown has affected the health and education of the children.
There are about 100 schools in Jawadhi hills, most of them fall under the Centre or the forest department’s purview. These schools are within three to five km radius of their houses. The rocky terrain, however, makes it difficult to travel. Teachers told The Quint that the school enrolment numbers are already poor and they are expecting a 30 to 40 percent increase in school dropout rates this academic year.
Many of these school have hostel facilities to ensure children have access to nutritious food because a recent study by Christian Medical College Hospital, Vellore found out that more than 90 percent of the children here are malnourished.
“Here, education isn't just about academics. It is also important for kids’ hygiene and nutrition. All this has been affected. Many kids have started working and there has been a rise in child marriages. Only 30 percent of the kids in my school can even afford three meals a day,” said Mahalakshmi.
The Quint spoke to kids in the villages who said the last time they ate meat was over one and a half years ago, at school.
Due to the lockdown there has been no regular supply of nutritious food which has further worsened their heath situation.
Many young boys and girls have been sent to work in coffee and pepper plantations in Kerala and Karnataka.
“The boys are sent to the forests to work and they feed on fruits or cook a curry of rats. Girls are made to work on the farms. Two kids who are in the 10th grade now are working in plantations in Kerala. Families choose to do this because then food is assured for the kids and it gives additional income for the family,” she added.
80 Percent Live Below Poverty Line
Jawadhi was once a sandalwood paradise, but there is nothing left of it owing to illegal trade.
As the infertile land doesn’t give good yield, many people have migrated to neighbouring districts for seasonal work.
Several families told The Quint that their incomes have gone down so much that they can afford to eat hardly one meal a day.
“I travel every day from Athipet, which is two kilometres away, to set up shop here in the market. Throughout the lockdown we didn't get to earn much and were hoping things would get better soon. But because of the lockdown and restriction in movement of vehicles, the cost of vegetables has gone up, which means we earn hardly Rs 50 a day,” said Deepa, a vegetable vendor.
Around 80 percent of the tribal people are living below the poverty line. Several families have resorted to borrowing money from private financiers who lend money on an exorbitant rate of interest.
People Hide in Fear of the Vaccine
While the positivity rate is going down, the response to the vaccination drive has been disappointing.
Influenced by rumours, many people here believe the vaccine could result in quick death.
“I heard people in the village talking about it. But so far no doctors or officials have visited. We are very skeptical to take any such medicines. We will not take this vaccine when we have heard our own people have died because of it,” Anandhan said.
When The Quint checked with the Primary Health Centres (PHC) in Jawadhi, we found out that the persons who died recently had co-morbidities or a complex heart situation and the vaccine was not a cause of death.
There are three medical teams that go every day to the villages in these hills to raise awareness. While they were able to administer hardly two doses in a day in April, the numbers have gone up now to 50 to 90 persons getting vaccinated daily.
“Once when I went to a village where there were 10 people sitting together. The moment they saw me, they ran away except for one person. I asked why didn’t he run, and he said he was vaccinated already. He was a graduate and said he was forced to do so by his employer. He then told me that nobody in the village would get vaccinated and asked me to leave,” said Dr Balachandran, Medical Officer.
Speaking to The Quint, two medical officers explained that they have devised a formula to convince the people.
“Step one, convince the panchayat president to take the vaccine. Two, hold an event where there is a public display of the vaccine being administered. Three, identify the oldest member of the village, and convince him to take the vaccine. Four, get ASHA workers, volunteers and self-help groups roped in to dispel fake news,” explained Dr Balachandran.
As of 24 June, only 4,030 persons have been vaccinated.
The local administration has also made it mandatory for all shopkeepers to take the vaccine in order to run businesses. This has convinced many to get vaccinated.
However, there is a lot of hesitancy among women to take the vaccine.
While the country is reeling under the COVID second wave and preparing for the future, the people of Jawadhi are asking for basic infrastructure.
“We don’t even have a road to our village. It is only called a corporation but we don't have even the basic facilities. We don’t have doctors or teachers. We don’t have any signal so it is not possible to even study online. We don’t have the bare minimum, so coronavirus is not my biggest worry right now,” said Anadhan.
Another recurring demand has been to get a PHC in every village so that there is easy and affordable access to healthcare for all. Many tribals requested that the government reopen schools quickly and provide groceries and provisions for the families.
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