Combating the Twin Effects of Amphan and COVID-19 in Odisha: Understanding Coping Capacities and Strengthening Mechanisms

Odisha is currently coping with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of supercyclone Amphan. This double occurrence is the first such experience for the state. Dealing with the twin challenges of managing both the events is extremely complex. We know that the structural and non-structural disaster preparedness of Odisha is regarded as sound when compared with other states in India. However, the co-occurrence of COVID-19 and Amphan was disastrous for the people of Odisha, who largely live in its rural areas. Therefore, a broader policy context needs to be worked upon, after identifying the overlapping impact emerging from the twin disasters. This would aid in understanding the adaptation in the decision-making process as well as in identifying the interventions required at different levels.

 

There have been debates among academicians, civil society organisations, state and community on different long- and short-term structural and non-structural preparedness measures to minimise the effect of extreme events such as natural disasters and pandemics. Though several constructive steps are undertaken to safeguard the community, sometimes, they prove insufficient, especially in the context of two disastrous events occurring simultaneously. Odisha is an apt case study for the same. For the last few months, along with the rest of the world, Odisha has been dealing with the novel coronavirus and recently, several of its districts (along with neighbouring West Bengal) were struck by cyclone Amphan. Thus, the state had to simultaneously deal with an ongoing pandemic and the aftermath of a natural disaster. 

The structural and non-structural disaster preparedness of Odisha is regarded to be sound when compared with all other states. It has proved its credibility in dealing with a single event in the past—no matter how big or small it was. However, the nature and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic is completely different from that of dealing with climate extremes. Coping with COVID-19 is a new development for the people of Odisha who predominantly live in its rural areas. Till the discovery of COVID-19 vaccines, the only remedy that was  put forward to protect lives against COVID-19 was “social distancing.” The World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidelines for maintaining social distance—"Maintain at least one meter (3 feet) distance between yourself and others; Avoid going to crowded places” (WHO 2020). 

The other important preventive measure is handwashing at regular intervals. In this context, it should be understood that such protocols indicated by the WHO to combat the virus would be difficult to practise for those households living within congested, overcrowded housing as well as those using shared basic amenities. In Odisha, the average number of living spaces is just 1.65 rooms and around 40% of the married couples stay with the rest of the family because of space constraints (Government of India 2019a). An analysis of the same report based on National Sample Survey (NSS) 76th round information on handwashing practices reveals that a little more than half the population (53.0% of total and 46.3% in rural areas) washes its hands using soap and water after defecation, while only 15% does so before having a meal (9.2% in the rural areas). The majority of the population (79%) uses only water to wash hands before meals (84% in rural areas). Thus, the major challenge to combat the virus lies in the behavioural practices of the majority of the population in the state. 

As per the prediction of the Special Relief Commissioner, Government of Odisha, four coastal districts, namely Balasore, Bhadrak, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara, were particularly vulnerable to Cyclone Amphan as they were close to the “Cone of uncertainty” of the storm (Mohanty 2020). These four districts together account for 11.3% of COVID-19 positive cases in Odisha (out of a total of 3,36,636 cases) as on 21 February 2021, according to the Department of Health and Family Welfare (Government of Odisha 2021). In this context, it is worth recalling that a health pandemic and its containment greatly rely on the responsiveness of the health system. The idea of distributive justice is at the core of such responsiveness, which includes responding “appropriately to the legitimate expectations of individuals” (Silva nd). This necessitates the existence of a proper healthcare system that can cater to these expectations. Table 1 provides the status of health indicators (infrastructure and human resources) in Odisha in 2019.

Table 1: Status of Health Indicators in Odisha, 2019

S No  
Particulars Required In Position Shortfall
1
 
Primary Health Centres (PHC) and Health and Wellness Centres (HWC)—PHC in Urban Areas 159  87  72
  Health worker (female)/Auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM)  435  200  235
  Doctors (allopathic)  87  109  *
  Pharmacists   87  82  05
  Lab technicians   87  87
2  
 
Community Health Centres in Rural Areas 336  377  *
  Surgeons   377  34  343
  Obstetricians and gynaecologists    377  117  260
  Physicians   377  34  343
  Paediatrician   377  51  326
  Radiographers   377  66  311
  Nursing staff   2639  2093  546
  Lab technicians   377  486  *

 
PHCs and HWC—PHCs in Rural Areas  1345  1288  57
  Health worker (female)/ ANM  1288  1053  235
  Health assistant (female)/ Lady health visitor   1288  1288
  Health assistant (male)   1288  22 1266
  Doctors   1288  813  475
  Lab technicians   1288  146  1142
  Nursing staffs   1288  475  813
  Pharmacists   1288  1198  90

 

Subcentre  and HWC-subcentres in Rural Areas  8382  6688  1694
  Health worker (female)/ ANM   6688  8134  *
  Health worker (male)   6688  3254  3434

Source: Government of India (2019b)
Note: *Surplus

 

There is a positive relationship between the health indicators presented in Table 1, their access and the coping mechanism of the communities. Pandemics such as COVID-19 need a strong healthcare system, fortified with the required physical infrastructure and human resources. However, the picture presented in Table 1 is far from satisfactory for the state. The shortfall observed for almost each and every indicator is glaring. The health index report of India compares Kerala with Brazil or Argentina and Odisha with Sierra Leone (Government of India 2019c; Guru 2020). Kerala topped the states within India while Odisha was one of the states from the bottom. Added to this regional disparity, there are social inequalities as well in terms of access to healthcare (Acharya 2018; Bhan et al 2016). Irrespective of these facts, the strategies adopted by Odisha in the wake of COVID-19 have been commendable, especially in terms of testing and rate of recovery. As per the information furnished on 21 February by the Government of Odisha (2021), the total number of tests conducted is 81,67,772 and the recovery rate from the total number of positive cases is 99.2% on 21 February 2021. 

Vicious Cycle of Vulnerability: Twin Challenge for the State

The unorganised labour market is the largest provider of employment and livelihood for the people of Odisha. Kannan (2020) categorises the unorganised as the “working poor.” It has been observed that people engaged in the informal sector work throughout the year. “If we don’t work all through the year, we will starve,” lamented a tea seller on Puri beach in Odisha. They earn their livelihood in two ways: first, by staying within Odisha, making use of available resources, and second, from activities associated with migration. This article attempts to provide a small glimpse of the loss of livelihood and the extent of vulnerabilities of the working poor within Odisha during this vulnerable time.

The people of Odisha generally wait eagerly for months to celebrate two festivals during this time of the year—Eid and Savitri Puja. The emphasis is not just on celebration but also on the fact that these festivals provide livelihood opportunities for many people irrespective of their caste, religion and class. The local fruit vendors are the key actors involved in the entire supply chain to make these festivals a success. For Savitri Puja, people use locally produced fruits (chironji and tendu) and leaves, which are generally available in the forest. It is a significant source of seasonal livelihood for the Adivasi people from the western Odisha belt as well as the rest of Odisha. They start work much in advance by first collecting leaves and then making containers out of the leaves in large numbers followed by the collection of tendu and chironji and then bringing these to the local market. 

The other livelihood earners during these festivals are bangle makers, weavers, shoe makers, tailors and their assistants, petty cloth shopkeepers, ration shopkeepers, milk vendors, etc. These two festivals provide a huge opportunity for a large number of poor people because within a short span of time, they can earn a sizeable income, which they save for the education and marriage of their children. This season also coincides with new admissions in colleges for Class 11, which requires payment for fees, dresses, books and cycles for the children. But in 2020, both the extreme events have put a stop to these livelihood activities. The whole of Odisha faced the quandary of lockdown, while the coastal districts suffered under the double burden of the pandemic and the cyclone. 

The other category of the working poor, mentioned earlier, largely migrates in the short run to Surat, Kolkata, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Goa to earn their livelihoods. They are mainly engaged as workers in hotels, construction sites, fishing activities or as domestic servants, rickshaw pullers, brick kiln workers, snack vendors, photographers, tea sellers, jewellery sellers, masseurs, cooks, caretakers, security staff, etc. The nationwide lockdown since the last week of March 2020 and its subsequent extensions to check the spread of COVID-19, have severely affected the majority of this population engaged in these sectors, both inside and outside Odisha. The sudden declaration of lockdown caught these workers unawares and disrupted their livelihoods at the destination point. 

The most important concern for these workers has been the provision of food. Their meagre savings saw them somehow manage through the first few days, after which reverse migration was the only choice left. Though respective state interventions were available, the affected people had to fight for their livelihood independently as the interventions of the state were limited in terms of time, area and dimension. For example, the chief minister of Telangana requested, through a press meet, that all the in-migrated people should stay back and that their food and stay would be looked after during this distress period. Keeping in view the unsecured livelihood options at the destination points, some people however began to take the bold decision of reverse migration. Subsequently, the rest of the people were also attracted by the prospect of relatively safer lives at the source points. They simply chose the reverse migration decision and ventured headlong into this journey. By choosing this process, they became “transgressors” (Guru 2020) and, at many places, were subjected to punitive measures adopted by police personnel. 

The first issue to be addressed in this regard has been to quarantine these reverse migrated people in isolated places. The state has been using schools, colleges, big halls and even cyclone centres in coastal Odisha as quarantine centres. As per the report of the Economic Times (2020), 242 out of 809 cyclone shelters in 12 coastal districts of Odisha were converted into temporary medical camps for those who returned from the other states. At the same time, the worrisome part for the state was in managing 11 lakh people from vulnerable areas (prone to the Cyclone Amphan) especially in terms of enforcing the WHO guidelines of maintaining social distance and practising hygiene. In addition to the remaining cyclone centres, the state had identified 7,092 other buildings to be utilised as temporary shelters. 

What Next?

Odisha has a largely agrarian economy and is thus susceptible to climate extremes and its negative impacts. As per Ommcom News (2020), the worst affected by Amphan are the districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak, Balasore, Jajpur and Mayurbhanj. Around 45 lakh people from 1,500 gram panchayats were affected, with more than one lakh hectares of farmland damaged. The volume of loss was very high. However, over a period of time, the community and the state have evolved a robust preparedness process to learn how to cope and live with these recurrent natural disasters. This is clearly visible from the outcomes in the form of reduced fatalities and loss, the reduced duration of time required to return to normalcy under the strong leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Now the state as well as the community at large clearly understand the process of adaptation in decision-making, the manner of planning the strategies and the variables that determine their effectiveness (Mishra 2019; 2012). The most important outcome of preparedness over the decades has been social cohesion at the grassroots-level. This mobilisation has resulted in collective action. The interplay of social and human capital has strengthened solidarity at the community level, enabled by a strong governance structure of institutions, policies and information, to mitigate the impact of shocks—economic or natural. 

However, the dilemma at this juncture is the applicability of the natural disaster management model to a pandemic and that too when a natural disaster has occurred at the same time. The main mantra of the model, which has been evaluated for a climate extreme since the supercyclone, is the prioritisation of adaptation options and identification of the points of interventions at different levels—community, state, NGOs—through a synchronised approach. Hence, gradually, the people of Odisha are affecting a shift from the autonomous adaptation process to a planned adaptation process. Collective action is the thread which links all the factors of this model. A question can be raised about the applicability of the same model to a pandemic situation. 

Here the main debate is on the kind of strategies we have adopted for the pandemic and it is obvious that all are instantaneous decisions, that is, ex-post strategies, meaning those formulated after the occurrence of the event. These measures are basically relief-based, which aim at immediate sustenance. They do not have a long-term perspective. For example, the state government was spending a huge amount on the distribution of free foodgrains for three months in advance to the public, aiming to cover 3.38 lakh people of the 1.16 lakh families of the state, with an option to lift these stocks in one go or on a monthly basis over three months (New Indian Express 2020). In a majority of the cases, people have already availed of the provision for three months at one go because of the high sense of insecurity that prevailed in the early days of the pandemic. The lack of storage space and the prospect of selling it to those who have no access must have induced many to collect the foodgrains in advance. Their sudden exposure to such a situation was the cause of their misery. It has been observed that due to a lack of purchasing power and lack of income stemming from their joblessness, they were using this extra stock as collateral to meet unforeseen expenditures, especially on health needs. Phula, a domestic help from the Sundargarh district of the state reported, “I received 105 kg of fine rice from the government, but I have already sold 50 kg from it. I got Rs 2000 for the same for my son’s health expenditure.” A clear gap can be seen in the intention of the state and its implementation.      

To provide assistance to those engaged in the informal sector, who have no access to social security or savings, during COVID-19, the government had made arrangements both in kind (ration for cardholders for three months) and cash. Apart from advance social security pension for three months to all the beneficiaries, women with Jan Dhan accounts were provided with an amount of ₹500 per month. Among migrant labourers, some of them have received funds through KALIA, PM-KISAN and MGNREGA work. In addition, Antyodaya and below poverty line cardholders received ₹1,000 per family from the state government. Beneficiaries under the Ujjwala Yojana programme were credited with an amount worth the cost of one cylinder into their bank accounts (Mishra et al 2020). The pertinent question, however, remains whether such efforts were enough to generate demand in the rural economy. Unless effective policies are implemented in a sustained manner to revive the rural economy, the adverse impact on affected households would be manifold leading to slow recovery. 

So, a larger policy context needs to be framed after identifying the overlapping impacts emerging from the twin disasters facing the communities. The task flow for the same would be two-pronged: (i) proper sequencing of the coping strategies developed solely for COVID-19 and the factors influencing these strategies; and (ii) integrating these with the disaster preparedness model to derive the overlapping impacts. The entire exercise will be helpful to understand the adaptation decision-making process as well as to identify the interventions required at different levels. The model that will emerge in this process will be able to handle a pandemic such as COVID-19 alone or in combination with a climate extremity such as Amphan, much like the one Odisha is facing at present. 

 

The author is grateful to an anonymous referee for the insightful comments and suggestions made on the paper. Thanks are also due to Kalpana Kannabiran, Pradeep Kumar Nayak, Gouri Shankar Mishra, Soumya Vinayan and Sugeeta Roy Choudhry for their valuable feedback and suggestions at different stages.

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