On October 7, 106 people tested positive, taking the total confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Nilgiris to 4,940. While the easing of restrictions has led to a rising number of cases, the limited healthcare facilities in the mountainous district have so far been able to cope, says District Collector J. Innocent Divya. While raising awareness and dealing with economic difficulties remain pressing challenges, the lockdown has had unintended benefits for the ecology of the Nilgiris. Edited excerpts from an interview with Ananth Krishnan:
What is the present COVID-19 situation in the Nilgiris?
From the beginning, when COVID-19 started, we began our response early. We are at a very, very fragile location, at a trijunction, with Coimbatore, Karnataka and Kerala bordering us. We had to start early on. Before even the government had put in some restrictions, we ensured that tourist places were closed. So when Kerala was reporting a large number of cases, we had a manageable situation, and for the last few months, we kept it under control. But the recent easing of restrictions has affected us and [also] the fact that cases are increasing in Kerala, Karnataka and Coimbatore. So our numbers also keep increasing. We have no other alternative because our people are entirely dependent on these places for trade or commerce. It is a Catch-22 situation.
Our strategy is that we are trying to maintain strict perimeter control of these containment areas; ensuring SOPs are followed without any deviation for which we have special squads; ensuring face-mask wearing; and restricting entry by e-passes, which is helping us keep numbers in check. Of course, this does not apply to local residents, who do travel outside a lot, so cases are increasing. But right now, this containment strategy is working fine, and I am sure we will be able to reduce the numbers in the coming days.
What are the special challenges because of the geography of the Nilgiris?
One is our location at this trijunction, the other is access to medical facilities. As we don’t have so many private players, we are entirely dependent on the government machinery for healthcare. So that is one stress on the administration as well as on the health infrastructure, because the numbers are increasing. We are doing a delicate balancing act between those who require medical care, immediate medical support, and those who require less support in COVID-19 care centres. As far as COVID-19 care centres are concerned, we are very comfortable. We have a large number of facilities. But our medical infrastructure, I would say is, is where we are facing a stress. If the numbers start rising, that is when we will have to press the panic button, but right now we are okay. The Coimbatore infrastructure is helping us. In some cases, the ESI Hospital there is taking our patients who have 70% of their lungs infected, where they require immediate support. The other problem here is with a higher elevation, the oxygen saturation also keeps dipping. So for those patients who have a unstable saturation levels, we prefer to send them to Coimbatore.
Raising awareness among the public on mask-wearing has been a big challenge, because people start complaining they are not able to breathe, also because there are lower oxygen levels in the mountains. I think the period of awareness is over and the period of enforcement has begun. I don’t think anybody isn’t aware of the fact that if you don’t wear a mask in public, you are likely to get infected. We have also instituted fines, and it will have to sink into the minds of each and every one of the people so they have to have this feeling that when I go out on the road and I don’t have a mask, I will be fined or I will be severely penalised. The problem with fining is, the moment they see a government vehicle, then they will wear the masks properly. For people who complain about mask wearing, I have offered to arrange a free trip to the COVID-19 ward so they can see how people are fighting for breath. Then they will realise that a mask is nothing.
Given that tourism is a big source of revenue in Ooty and Coonoor especially, how bad has the economic impact been?
In the last five months, we have had absolutely no income from the tourism sector. From last month, we have started issuing e-passes for the tourists and opening up public parks like the Botanical Garden. We have been increasing the number of tourists passes, first we started with 50 and now we are processing 200 requests per day. So this way, we are trying to rejuvenate that sector, but also balancing with the medical infrastructure because any tourist who turns positive here will also have to be treated here.
For the tea sector, I would say we are very lucky because we restarted early on, when the northeast States were shut down. We just had four days of lockdown. The Chief Minister was kind enough to give us those orders that tea comes under the agriculture sector and as essential services. These few months have been a really watershed moment for the tea industry in the Nilgiris district to such an extent that the small growers have been benefited, so it has been a boon for the tea industry.
What has the pandemic meant for the longer term environmental challenges facing the Nilgiris, from preserving the shola forests to the animal population?
I think this is nature’s way of giving time because there was so much tourism, and other activities, in the hill district. Yes, we now have a focused strategy and approach towards COVID-19 but there is no lack of attention on the environment sector. For instance, even now, for tree-felling permissions, we are strictly ensuring 50% of the number of trees are replenished by native shola species. The district has a tiger, leopard and elephant population. The numbers are going up. If you go on the Mudumalai road now, it is common to see gaur with their calves, a situation I have never seen in the past three years that I have been here. It is not only a lack of tourism, but intervention to ensure their spaces that has created a positive impact on the population of these endemic species.