The Forbesganj COVID-19 Superspreader

May 14, 2021

-By Ruchira Gupta 

Forbesganj is a small agricultural town in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is also my home where my family has lived for three generations, manufacturing and trading in rice. It is in one of the poorest districts of the country, Araria in the state of Bihar, and home to many of the returning migrants last year, affected by the COVID-19 lockdown. It had miraculously escaped the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 23 million people and killed more than 250,000 in India. People in this small town followed government rules in social distancing and wearing masks from early on to fight the spread of the virus. Even small vegetable vendors, tea stall owners and daily wage earners refrained from spending time outside to protect themselves and each other. They did this at the cost of their livelihoods.

My NGO Apne Aap runs a small community centre for victims of sex-trafficking and their children in the area. I have helped many of the women transition out of prostitution by getting bank loans and starting small businesses. Some sell spices, some work as daily wage labourers, one has tea stall, another is a vegetable vendor, and a third has wedding-dance company. All of them stopped their businesses during the lockdowns.

Yet, their elected leader, Vidya Sagar Keshari – the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from the ruling BJP party here, did not care.  In April, even after the devastating second wave of COVID-19 in India had begun to consume lives,  this BJP MLA held a lavish wedding for his son with hundreds of guests, mostly unmasked and all in close proximity – without following the protocols or guidelines issued by the government against COVID-19.

This event could be a COVID-19 super-spreader, and may have put the little town I hold very dear in great danger.  All I can think of is how heroically the most marginalized women, who had never attended school, respected the science of social distance, while their elected leader let them down.

I, of course, will continue to  do what I can. Only time will tell if it is big or small.

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