The floods in Assam are an annual feature, with the mighty Brahmaputra and other rivers of the north-eastern state overflowing every monsoon. The seemingly inevitable has happened this year too, with a whopping 50 lakh of the state’s 3 crore people affected by the floods that have wreaked havoc in the state. At least 26 of the 33 districts of Assam have been affected by the floods, and lakhs of people have been forced to seek shelter.
Meanwhile, the death toll due to the flooding waters has crossed 90 according to news agency PTI, and hundreds of crores of rupees worth of property has been damaged. Even animals such as the famous one-horned rhino of Assam haven’t escaped the wrath of sweeping rivers, forcing them to seek higher ground. At least two rhinos have drowned in the floodwaters in the famous Kaziranga National Park.
However, there is one additional reason why the floods are such a challenge for the Assam government this time around. The state, like many other parts of the country, is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The floods have made the job of health and other government officials that much more difficult.
The state has so far recorded 18,666 coronavirus cases and nearly 50 deaths due to COVID-19, the toll still far lower than many other larger states. Considering Assam is the gateway to the northeast and home to more than 30 million people, the number of deaths suggests the virus has not been as destructive in the state.
But that could change.
In recent days, more and more cases are being reported. In the last 24-hour period Assam saw a spike of 859 cases.
The surge in cases is being driven by the Kamrup Metropolitan district, which has seen a 26 per cent increase in infections in just two days. The district alone accounts for more than 7,500 of the state’s total cases. This is probably because state capital Guwahati comes under Kamrup district.
That the virus has been spreading fast in the past two weeks can be gauged from the fact that several bureaucrats, including the Secretary to Assam Governor, tested positive in the last few days.
A 14-day lockdown that started on June 28 in Kamrup was later extended till July 19.
The flood relief and rescue work is being spearheaded by the National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Force together with the local administration.
However, because of the nature of the rescue work, maintaining social distancing is a challenge. Some relief centres for flood victims may also have to double up as quarantine facilities with adequate sanitation infrastructure in place.
Local health officials have to ensure that flood relief centres don’t become new coronavirus hotspots, and people in them get adequate access to health services. Scaling up health services, including medicines and an adequate number of doctors and nurses, in far-off districts in this large state and making COVID-19 testing kits available to the flood victims who show symptoms of coronavirus are the need of the hour.
Since floods are very much an expected part of life in the state, the Assam government had time to make adequate provisions in the last few months to deal with the impending dual crisis.