Muhammed Badage is 87 years old. He was a sailor for about 30 years, and after retirement, he worked as a carpenter who made large fishing boats in Minicoy Island of Lakshadweep. It was only after mid-March that Muhammed and other residents of the villages on these isolated islands came to know about the pandemic.
However, fortunately, the 10 inhabited tiny islands of Lakshadweep, which has a population of more than 65,000 people, have not reported a single case of coronavirus yet, even though they are geographically close to Kerala and depend on the state for basic necessities.
Many men on these islands, in Minicoy island, work on ships and sail off to other countries. They sign off every six to seven months and travel to their home island via ship from Kochi in Ernakulam district or Beypore in Kozhikode district of Kerala. Medical facilities in the islands are in a primary stage. The government hospitals in each island cannot accommodate more than 20 patients at a time. There are no ventilators, facilities to do medical tests and specialists. Medical emergencies are rushed to Kochi by helicopter. Groceries, vegetables, medicines and other basic necessities have to be brought from Kerala. The islands are blessed with fish and coconuts.
Speaking to TNM, Dr Muneer, a practising Physician and Vice President, Minicoy Village Dweep Panchayat, said, "These islands are vulnerable. A majority of the residents are sailors and work abroad. The land in Mumbai and travel to Kochi before they board a ship to their islands. We were at high risk. Additionally, people here were not aware how serious this pandemic is.”
Dr Muneer also said that Lakshadweep was late to take precautions against the pandemic.
"On March 16, 3,500 passengers came to islands from Kozhikode and Kochi. Among them, 1,000 were Minicoy natives and remaining from the other islands. It was on March 20 that they were asked to remain in home quarantine. Until then, they were free to go anywhere. However, luckily, none of them turned positive," Dr Muneer said.
“More ships arrived on March 26 and 25. The surveillance period of the passengers in these ships is not over yet. Only after their quarantine period is over, on April 10, can we be relieved,” he added.
In case a person shows symptoms, the district administrations have made certain arrangements. “A ship, which is halted near the Minicoy island, will take the person to Kerala for further treatment," he said.
The Union Territory imposed a partial lockdown on March 22 and a complete lockdown on March 25. “We have a very few policemen and few officers of the Indian Reserve Battalion. They are struggling to keep a check on the spread of the disease as many people are not strictly following the lockdown rules," said Dr Muneer.
He added that even before the administration ordered regulations, some people took steps to maintain social distancing, like asking devotees to not attend the Friday masses at churches.
Strict screening helped Lakshadweep
Dr Muneer says if the pandemic hits Lakshadweep, the islands will not have the capacity to handle it.
“Until March 25, there were only a few cases in Ernakulam district, from where a majority of the islanders returned. That could be one of the reasons nobody got infected yet. Others were screened in the airports," he noted.
Dr Mubarak, nodal officer of screening at Kochi naval boarding, also gave similar reasoning — strict screening at the boarding point.
"Now, all passenger ships to the islands have been stopped. In March, we did a temperature screening of all passengers who were returning to islands after a visit to Kerala and allowed them to board. The passengers who came from abroad after signing off from their ships were asked to remain in quarantine for some days in Kochi and only after that, they were allowed to board. They were also clearly directed to remain in home quarantine after reaching their respective islands," explained Dr Mubarak.
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