While the coronavirus outbreak continues to wreak havoc across the length and breadth of India, Lakshwadeep has so far been spared from featuring in the Union Health Ministry's list of ever-increasing numbers.
Far away from metropolises of Mumbai and Delhi, where daily cases go by the thousands, Lakshadweep – India's smallest Union territory off the southwestern coast – has recorded no COVID-19 case officially so far. With the pandemic now more than seven months old in India, this has been, by no means, an easy feat.
So what is it that this archipelago of 36 islands has done to ensure it remains COVID-free? Was daily life never disrupted there, with its residents never having to live with a 'new normal'? And how could its natural advantage of being geographically isolated turn into a disadvantage if a COVID-19 case was to land there?
How Has Lakshadweep Managed to Evade Corona?
An elaborate mechanism of screening, testing and quarantine has been cited as the reason why Lakshadweep – with a population of just over 64,000– has been able to prevent any influx of coronavirus infections so far.
Dr Muneer Manikfaan, a doctor based in Lakshadweep's Mincoy island, says measures such as screening of passengers as well as putting a stop to both domestic and foreign tourism, started very early on.
"(In the initial stage), including March, April and May, there was an inflow from the mainland. Because lots of students are there, people who have migrated there, working there, a lot of people are there... especially in Kerala... (Getting people back) was a hectic job for the administration... And they did it remarkably well...," he tells The Quint over the phone from Minicoy.
In fact, according to the administration, pre-boarding screening of passengers travelling by sea as well as by air had started in the early part of February itself. In India, as a whole, universal screening for all international flights was announced by the government on 4 March.
Meanwhile, Abdul Salam, a resident of Andrott island working as a journalist with Doordarshan and All India Radio, speaks of a "risk" that the Lakshadweep administration took in the beginning – at the time when the lockdown was not imposed – in bringing scores of people back to the islands.
But that "risk" ended up having a positive impact, he points out, in that when the COVID-19 cases started rising in the 'mainland', the administration had been already able to bring a significant number of the islanders back to Lakshadweep. In the meantime, among the timely measures introduced by the administration was making testing compulsory and bringing down the number of ports serving as an entry point to the islands for people to just one – in Kochi.
Then there has been the long-winding procedure of quarantine for incoming passengers that has helped the islands remain COVID-free.
This has entailed a seven-day quarantine in Kochi, followed by a COVID-19 test before being allowed to board the ship. Even after reaching Lakshadweep, another 14 days of home quarantine is mandated for these passengers.
Life in Lakshadweep
Unlike the rest of the country where different phases of unlocking have been accompanied by well-founded worries of a surge in coronavirus cases, Lakshadweep hasn’t had to worry over it yet.
During the initial 21-day national lockdown, its two residents say the government mandate was followed strictly, with no shops open, no transportation and people mostly abiding by the rules.
Now, however, like other parts of the country, few restrictions remain. While the chances of contracting the virus in the rest of the country have risen manifold, it remains negligible for the people of Lakshadweep.
"In islands, there are no such restrictions now. Restrictions are (only) there for big, public gatherings with, say, more than 100 people. But small meetings are allowed, and shops are open," Salam says.
What if a COVID-19 Case is Detected in the Near Future?
Keeping aside Lakshadweep's success till now, there's naturally a sense of anxiety on what would the Union Territory do if a COVID-19 case were to be detected there.
If that were to happen, Salam says, then it would be another story from the successful one so far – "a reverse story". "People won't be able to go anywhere. Some way or the other, they'll be getting it. There's a big chance here (for the virus) to spread very easily. And if a case comes up here, then there won't be any doubt that this place will be totally shut down. Now everything is open, but at that time, it can be fully shut down...," he tells The Quint.
A health infrastructure with "minimum facilities", and limited doctors and paramedical staff also feeds into the concern. The Union Territory has only three hospitals, along with a handful of community health and primary health centres. In Kavaratti, a block with 30 beds under the Indira Gandhi hospital had been set aside for COVID-19 patients.
”(The health infrastructure) has been upgraded to specialised in a few islands now... But this is just the beginning... If (COVID) enters, it will be difficult to manage. That is why the administration is doing its maximum to prevent entry to islands with its restrictions [sic].”Dr Muneer Manikfaan to The Quint
Fears Over 'Loopholes'
Despite Lakshadweep's meticulous measures that have ensured a COVID-free status so far, Salam asserts that loopholes still exist in the management of the situation.
"Management of ship crews is a worry for Lakshadweep," he says, pointing out that they are not subjected to rigorous testing while going back and forth from islands to the mainland. At entry points such as Kochi, he calls for the deployment of more resources so that norms cannot be flouted very easily.
Worry also exists over the national-level SOPs to prevent COVID-19 being eased, with Salam pitching for the Union Territory to follow its own system and set of rules which doesn't make it more vulnerable to the influx of COVID-19.