Intersectoral convergence helps tribal communities in Malappuram district battle the pandemic

When Kerala was witnessing a gradual increase in its COVID-19 cases, the tribal villages of Malappuram were silently setting an example for the rest of the State. These areas not only kept the mortality rate under check but also developed containment strategies that deserved applause. As a result of persistent efforts in generating awareness about COVID-19, various stakeholders were brought together to combat the disease.  As cases of COVID-19 surged due to the second wave, tribal villages also saw the inoculation of more than 600 community members amongst themselves.

Malappuram is home to the largest tribal communities of Kerala. Its blocks of Nilambur, Wandoor and Kalikavu have one of the largest tribal population in the state, including primitive tribes. The region was ravaged badly during the 2019 floods. Its tribal communities were the worst hit. They were marooned and the connectivity to their areas was lost as many bridges and roads collapsed during the floods. The rehabilitation process which started immediately after the floods took a back seat with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. These communities lived in constant fear with limited access to healthcare and livelihood. It is during this time that many NGOs stepped forward to provide help and support. One such NGO was Jan Shikshan Sansthan (JSS).

Establishing community linkages on priority

JSS, under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, provide vocational skills using innovative approaches and strategies to non-literate & neo-literate persons and those with a rudimentary level of education. They helped identify market driven skillsets relevant for the local region and its economy. They also worked in the remotest parts of the country helping reach out to inaccessible areas that catered to the needs of the poorest of the poor.

 “The biggest challenge for us was to bring these people in the mainstream.  That’s where our community members/workers played an important role. By holding health camps we got familiar with the tribal community and mobilised them for fighting COVID-19,” said Shri V Ummer Koya, Director, JSS.

JSS has linked literacy with vocational skills through the Life Enrichment Education (LEE) programme where they train community members in enhancing livelihoods while imparting knowledge in basic healthcare. 

Reaping dividends of mainstreaming through convergence

Another initiative that was critical for taking health care services to the doorsteps of tribal communities was Vidya – a community friendly programme that aimed to enhance literacy and livelihood opportunities of women in tribal communities. Under this programme, women from the nearby tribal communities were sensitized on health, hygiene, personality development and childcare. To strengthen this program, JSS collaborated with the State Resource Centre at Thiruvananthapuram for designing and implementing the initiative.

The collaboration witnessed some unexpected results during the pandemic as JSS swiftly reached out to tribal communities with masks, sanitizers, food supplements, as well as messages on COVID Appropriate Behaviours (CAB), etc.  As a result, there was not even a single case of COVID-19 reported from these pockets in the first wave of the pandemic. Even the Grama Panchayats of Karulai, Chaliyar, Amarambalam, in Malappuram district, with majority of tribal population were COVID-free during this challenging time.

Interestingly, these three panchayats were adopted by Shri P V Abdul Wahab, under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY), a rural development programme broadly focusing on social and cultural development of villages. Under the programme, the SAGY villages were trained in basic computer skills in association with the National Digital Literacy Mission. The trained personnel from the SAGY villages were boon to the local community as they successfully helped in bridging the digital divide in COVID-19 hit tribal communities.

 When COVID-19 cases were reported from tribal areas in Nilambur region, JSS realised there were not enough quarantine facilities available. Their team immediately swung into action and started an awareness campaign. The Health Department and Gram Panchayat came together and organised mass antigen test camps. People were told about the benefits of wearing masks, use of sanitizers, social distancing and importance of vaccination.

“By involving other departments and ministries and using a convergent approach to bring together departments of Education, Livelihoods and Health, on-ground teams could build rapport with communities, maximize reach and make sure no one got left behind as the country raced to get vaccinated.”

Shri P V Abdul Wahab, Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha and Chairman JSS

Bridging the digital divide and geographical constraints

The trained personnel from SAGY villages assisted JSS in online registration of tribal people for vaccination. The volunteers went door-to-door to make sure eligible people got registered for vaccination. On the first day of the drive, 50 beneficiaries from Karulai tribal areas got themselves registered. When the vaccination started, Shri P V Wahab ensured that people took their vaccines as per the schedule and other eligible people did not miss their dose. Vehicles were arranged for the community to take them to the vaccination facility. JSS, Malappuram also got the support of Nilambur Rotary Club in their campaign against COVID-19. Further, the district administration provided ample supported to JSS by arranging special vaccination camps in far-flung tribal hamlets.

 “We want to send a message that the most vulnerable population groups are our top priority. We will at all times endeavour to ensure that no one is left behind,” emphasized Shri PV Wahab. More than 10,000 tribal people have already been vaccinated for COVID-19. This would not have been possible without the integrated approach that was followed by JSS.