India, which became the global epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic starting from March-April, is now witnessing life coming to back to some semblance of normality with more oxygen and hospital beds available for patients. Businesses are also reopening their doors to customers in accordance with healthy and safety protocols. As of 9th June, the country recorded approximately 92,600 fresh cases in the previous 24 hours, the lowest reported level in two months. Around 2,200 deaths were also recorded.
But the good news comes with a caveat. The coastal areas of the country’s eastern and western regions were hit by two massive cyclones – Tauktae, which made landfall on 17th May and Yaas a little over a week later, on 26th May – that devoured several lives besides causing huge destruction to property. They’ve also impacted the vaccination drive in the country which is attempting to ramp up inoculations.
Cyclones Tauktae and Yaas wreak havoc in India
On 17th, Cyclone Tauktae hit the western coast, affecting five states: Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat along with two Union Territories — Lakshadweep and Daman & Diu. An estimated 169 people lost their lives, far more than the toll of any cyclone rising out of the Arabian Sea. Power lines were torn down and hundreds of hectares of agricultural fields were damaged, as well as thousands of trees uprooted.
Nine days later, Cyclone Yaas battered the coast of the eastern states of Odisha and West Bengal, causing extensive damage to livelihoods and property. The loss of lives was minimised due to better planning in the affected states, which are are prone to natural disasters.
Swathes of agricultural land were destroyed by Yaas as farmers in eastern coastal areas where preparing to sow rice paddies ahead of the monsoon season.
“We’d purchased machinery and seeds,” says Monojit Das, a farmer in Ramnagar block in West Bengal’s East Midnapore district, which was badly hit by the storm. “But the high tide spurred by the cyclone destroyed everything. The tall and strong waves broke the mud embankments resulting in river water entering our fields and inundating them. It took days for the stagnant water to drain out from the fields. We won’t be able to farm for the rest of the year as embankments need to be rebuilt with concrete to stop water from entering. Everything is destroyed”.
The West Bengal government has pegged total losses at around 200 billion rupees (2,800 million US dollars) in a review report submitted to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 28th May. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also estimated a loss of around 221,000 hectares of crops and 71,560 hectares of land used for horticulture.
A similar predicament is being faced by farmers in Odisha, where several hectares of fields were destroyed by Yaas. “We’ve been living in coastal areas for generations and natural disasters are common here, but I’ve never witnessed anything like Cyclone Yaas before,” says 73-year-old Umakanat Das, a farmer from Balasore district. “It destroyed everything in a blink of an eye without giving us any opportunity to save our households and belongings. The high tide flooded our houses and fields in just a few minutes”.
India’s cyclones have affected its vaccination drive
Apart from damaging lives and livelihoods, the cyclones have affected the Covid-19 inoculation drives in the concerned states. In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, a vaccine centre was damaged in Cyclone Tauktae, forcing the administration to shut it down. In addition, Covid patients were shifted from designated centres to safer venues as a precautionary measure.
Vaccinations were also suspended in remote areas due to the storms. In states like West Bengal and Odisha, healthcare workers struggled to reach areas that had been flooded even days after the storm.
Furthermore, the priority for affected people is to get food and water to survival, rather than vaccines. “We need to survive first and repair our homes, rather than thinking about vaccination. We can only take a jab if we’re still alive,” says Shambhunath Patra from Balasore, who received his first dose of a coronavirus vaccine in March but passed the twelve-week deadline for the second jab.
So has the digital divide
Not only natural disasters, but the online registration required for people aged 18 to 45 to be vaccinated has also affected the inoculation drive. The major problem is for people in rural areas who don’t have access to the Internet or smartphones.
According to a 2019 World Bank Collection report, around 66 per cent of the India’s population lives in rural areas. Plus, not even half the country’s population uses smartphones. Smartphone penetration was 42 per cent in the fiscal year 2020 – almost double the 2016 rate of 24 per cent – and is projected to increase to 51 per cent by 2025, according to Statista Research Department, a market and consumer data company.
Moreover, several remote areas still suffer from lack of Internet connectivity and many people are too poor to afford even a simple mobile phone, let alone a smartphone. It’s thus proving difficult for certain rural communities to register online to be vaccinated.
Sohan Pal, 42, is a daily labourer living in Sonepat in northern India’s Haryana state. He says he uses a mobile phone with no Internet access. “I’ve never used a smartphone as it’s costly and doesn’t fit into my budget. Being illiterate and with no technological knowledge, it’s also not possible to operate such phones, which come with so many features. How will I get the jab? Are only people with smartphones and Internet connectivity eligible to survive? What about the poor? The government should also think about us and allow offline registrations as it’s done for people over the age of 45”.
As life continues on the slow path to normalcy in India, the biggest worry for people hit by cyclones and digital inequality is to get vaccinated irrespective of tough circumstances.