Coronavirus Outbreak: Mizoram locals and NGOs set example for communities in other states to ensure availability of essential items, implement strict lockdown
In the Christian-majority state of 1.1 million people, with its inadequate health infrastructure, a humongous community effort is underway to prevent the outbreak of the pandemic
Guwahati: On Wednesday morning, the small hill-state of Mizoram reported it's first COVID-19 case. A 50-year-old pastor who recently came back from Amsterdam had tested positive.
As the news broke, panic gripped some locals in Mission Vengthlang in Southern Aizawl, where the pastor lives with his family. In fact, to calm down tempers, members of the local task-force had to make public announcements reassuring the residents. Some of the members have been since keeping a close watch on the pastor's neighbours while other volunteers man the streets to ensure nobody breaks home quarantine or the lockdown and curfew order.
Another small group of volunteers have been busy distributing rice and other essentials to the needy in the neighbourhood. "We don't want anyone to starve," said L Thangmawia, the local Mizo National Front MLA who joined in as a volunteer with the local task force in Mission Vengthlang.
In the Christian-majority state of 1.1 million people, with its inadequate health infrastructure, a humongous community effort is underway to prevent the outbreak of the pandemic and to cope with the 21-day lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The powerful local community organisations like the Young Mizo Association (YMA) have stepped in with their members in this time of crisis.
According to L Lalengmawia, Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, Mizoram, there is a state-wide task force, headed by the chief secretary of the state, to tackle COVID-19 . There are also district wise task forces headed by the district's deputy commissioner.
The community participation manifests in the local taskforce in every village and all localities in urban centres. The local council or village council chairperson heads these task forces, while the head of the local unit of the NGO, as community organisations like the YMA is commonly referred to in Mizoram, serves as its vice-chairman. The volunteers also comprise mostly of members from the NGOs.
"We have been holding several meetings. It was decided that unless we involve the community at large, our efforts would not be effective," Lalengmawia said.
Since 22 March, in the heart of capital Aizawl, Dr SR Zomunthara who heads the Dawrpui locality unit of the YMA has taken up the post of vice-chairman of the local task force.
Regional Director with the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Zomunthara, has been reaching out to non-Mizos in the locality to assure them that the task-force is there to help them with essentials should they run out of food. To meet the initial demand, the Dawrpui local task force has stocked up on five quintals of rice, two quintals of pulses and two bags of potatoes. "We will continue to stock up more as per the needs of the locality," said Zomunthara.
His colleagues, meanwhile, man the two barricades they have set up to check people who are stepping out since the lockdown started on 22 March.
"We tell them politely to go back. We also give them hand sanitiser, a pair of gloves and a mask," said Zomunthara. On the first day of the lockdown, the volunteers had to turn as many as 500 people back to their homes. The number waned and on Thursday when the curfew was in force, fewer people stepped out.
The local task force has received contributions amounting to Rs 1 lakh so far which has been used to buy essentials and the supply of sanitiser, gloves and masks. A portion of the money has also been used to hire a vehicle, a sprayer and a generator to spray disinfectant in the locality which houses many of Aizawl’s big commercial establishments.
Former chief minister Lalthanhawla explained how the compact Mizo society has responded in times of crises putting the community welfare over individual survival. "Even during the famine or the Mautam (in 1958-59), every village fought together. During the worst days of insurgency when there were curfews, the community shared whatever it had. That is how it survived together," the 82-year-old recounts. Indian government’s inadequate response to Mautam, a famine caused by the flowering of the abundant bamboo growing wild that unleashed rodents upon food grains, spawned a bloody insurgency which ended with the Mizo Accord.
Often, when the Mizo society is in a difficult spot, it is the YMA which is the first responder. "It is because of our reach," said Lalmachhuana, the general secretary of the Central YMA, the apex body.
The organisation was formed in 1935 by the missionaries for the development of Mizos in line with Christian values.
In its more than eight decades-long existence, the organisation which now has more than 800 branches and over 4,00,000 members constituting around 40 percent of the state's population, exercises influence in all walks of Mizo social and political life. Any Mizo over the age of 14 can be a member of the organisation.
The organisation has 19 sub-committees to deal with different aspects. "It is like the government has different departments. For example, there is one for health and sanitation, for education, recreation, environment and forest, music, and disaster management," said Lalmachhuana, the General Secretary of the organisation.
When someone passes away, it is the local branch of the YMA which takes care of everything — from preparing the casket, to informing the relatives and friends and even visiting the family in the mourning period. "The deceased person's family does not have to do anything," said Lalmachhuana.
However, often the YMA is alleged to assume the role of a vigilante body when its volunteers' corner violators of prohibition, drug addicts, queer community and sex workers - essentially, anyone who defies their moral code. The volunteers are also often involved in checking of the inner line permit, to single out undocumented outsiders in the state. The organisation has also been at the forefront of demands of scrapping the existing autonomous council for the minority Chakmas in south Mizoram.
While it claims to be apolitical, YMA plays a major role in political life. Most recently, it was active in the anti-Citizenship Act protests where placards of "Hello China, Bye-Bye India" were common. During his last visit to Aizawl, Home Minister Amit Shah had met a delegation to discuss the concerns about the contentious law. The delegation included top leaders of the YMA.
In south Mizoram's Lawngtlai district which shares a border with both Myanmar and Bangladesh and is dominated by the Lai community, it is the Central Young Lai Association which is leading the community effort.
Apart from mounting a 24-hour vigil, it is also ensuring that every village is given just enough essential commodities to cater to its immediate needs."Our members are not allowing anyone to buy extra stock. They are also ensuring that the essentials reach every household," said J Sangahangpuia, president of the Central Young Lai Association.
Along with the Assam Rifles and the Border Security Forces, it is the community volunteers who are ensuring nobody from Myanmar and Bangladesh enters through the mostly open border and under a free movement regime which allows Myanmarese to come up to 16 kilometres inside Mizoram.
"Government cannot have a presence everywhere. It is because of the community effort that there is no movement on the border," said Vanlalruata, the president of the CYMA.
Sangahangpuia concurs. "This epidemic is very dangerous. If we are not involved, nobody can control the people"
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