Aythala, Ranni (Kerala): Going by Kerala’s widely urbanised landscape, Aythala near Ranni in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, is smaller than a village. Like elsewhere in the state, the place is dotted with impressive homes built with remittance money, but there are only a handful of shops and a few churches that occasionally break the otherwise continuous stretch of greenery on both sides of its meandering roads.
But Aythala is where the combined hearts and minds of Keralites are focused, for its presently infamous stature as the epicentre of the state’s coronavirus outbreak.
The statistics are stark: It was a couple from Aythala based in Italy along with their son who brought the dreaded contagion with them when they landed in Kochi on February 29. The virus soon infected the couple’s octogenarian parents, and later the Italian resident’s brother and wife.
The virus also affected the Italian resident’s daughter and son-in-law, making it nine from the family. The daughter and son-in-law are being treated at the Kottayam Medical College.
Within days of the trio’s arrival from Italy, they visited numerous homes, and that was apparently how they passed it on to an elderly lady and her married daughter in nearby Kozhencherry. That took the total for Kerala to 11.
In Ernakulam district, a 3-year-old boy and his parents were also diagnosed with the disease, taking the state’s Covid tally to 14.
In short, Aythala with seven Covid patients and the two in Kozhencherry make it nine patients for Pathanamthitta district, out of the 60 diagnosed with Covid in all of India.
Aythala has a population of roughly 1,500 and forms Ward 12 of the Ranni-Pazhavangadi panchayat, which has a population of about 20,000.
With a significant NRI population and proximity to Ranni town, Aythala is a buzzing village in normal times, but now there is a sombre mood, and even the village market on Wednesday remains shut.
Bobby Abraham, the member representing Aythala in the Pazhavangadi panchayat has been on his toes over the past week, co-ordinating multiple activities of the local body and district administration, including building awareness, distributing food kits and medicines for those quarantined at homes, and ensuring that people do not panic.
He greets people with folded hands, the traditional Indian way of greeting, brought back into fashion by the Covid-19 outbreak. With a few masks lying on his table, he is busy giving instructions to his team on distribution of kits and medicines.
“This is in a way worse than the trouble we had during the flood in 2018,” says Abraham. “Those days, we had enough supplies and many volunteers but this time the scare of infection is keeping people away. We find it difficult even to get volunteers to distribute food kits,” he says.
The villagers are also angry that they are being stigmatised. Labourers told Gulf News that people outside the village are not hiring them because they are from Aythala.
In one case, a man even had the jolt of getting a doctor’s appointment cancelled apparently because of his address. “I fixed a doctor’s appointment for my daughter at the government hospital in Thiruvalla, but they called back in the evening saying they could not entertain us because of some order restricting our entry there,” Soji Mepurath told Gulf News.
Medical certificates sought
To add to their troubles, some educational institutions and companies are asking students and staff from Aythala to produce medical certificates to prove they have not been infected. Abraham says it is pure harassment meted out to Aythala residents.
About 35 homes in the Aythala area have been declared home isolation centres, and these families are being provided with food kits comprising rice, wheat flour, coconut, onions and some more provisions.
Sweets, smiles and then a shock
When the Covid-19 infected couple and their son came home for a three-week holiday to Aythala on February 29, it was a time of pure joy for the couple’s aged parents, family members in the locality and neighbours.
“As usual, they came home and gave us sweets brought from Italy. This time they were all the more joyous because the couple’s son had got a job in Italy after studying radiology in Kerala. It has been about four years since he started working and this was his first visit home after that,” one of the Covid-infected family’s neighbours told Gulf News.
The neighbour, who did not want to be identified, is among those who are home-quarantined and are receiving food kits from the district administration.
The local newspaper vendor, Surendran Nair, says the couple’s elderly parents hardly left their homes and that they had stopped newspaper subscriptions some time back after both of them had failing eye-sight.
One thing the neighbours are sure is that the couple and their son did not go to the St Kuriakose Church on March 1, Sunday.
“They only arrived on the midnight of February 29 and they could not make it to the Sunday Mass. All the talk of they having passed on the virus to church members is pure humbug,” said one of the neighbours.
Have-nots suffer most
Pathanamthitta district is home to a significant NRI population from Kerala, who together remit roughly a trillion rupees (Dh50 billion) to the state annually. The NRI wealth has also led to a palpable wealth inequality in society.
The coronavirus scare has made life tough for the financial outliers, as the local economy has been severely singed.
“Workers from Aythala are turned down almost everywhere, making it tough for many families,” says Jacob Lukose, a former vice-president of the Pazhavangadi panchayat. Lukose knows just about every family in the locality and says there are six families from Aythala who are based in Italy. He feels the particularly harsh summer this year and the Covid-19 outbreak have together dealt a double blow to Aythala residents.
Pain visible on the ground
On the ground, the pain is visible everywhere. Rows of shops in Ranni’s city centre remain closed and several private buses have stopped services because there are very few commuters.
In his Sreemangalam store in Aythala, Rajasekharan Nair stands forlorn as customers have all but dried up. “It is true that everybody has some fear in their minds. Business is severely affected as everyone is keeping indoors”, he says.
People in all walks of life are affected. Says Aythala ward member Bobby Abraham: “This morning, a neighbour called to say he couldn’t get hay for his cow because no one was willing to deliver it here.”
“Our life has been miserable from the time of demonetisation,” says Saji T.S., who drives an autorickshaw for a living. “The floods followed in 2018, and now comes the coronavirus. My friends and I have hardly any takers for our rickshaws. We’ve been here from 8am today and till noon we have got just a single ride worth Rs 30,” he says.
He feels the coronavirus may be conquered soon, but for Aythala and Ranni to bounce back it may take quite some time.