Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday warned about the rural spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has stretched overburdened healthcare systems and wreaked destruction.

Compared to the first wave in 2020, this year has seen a rapid rise in the number of infections and deaths in rural parts, home to 65% of the country’s 1.3 billion population.

The government has been facing increasing criticism over its handling of the second wave, as super spreader events, such as political rallies and Kumbh Mela, threaten to spread the covid-19 infections to villages.

While releasing over 20,000 crore to 95 million recipients under the eight tranche of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, or PM-Kisan scheme, Modi, “warned about the spread of covid-19 in rural areas and urged the village panchayats to ensure proper awareness and sanitation in their respective areas,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The prime minister said that this once in a century pandemic is challenging the world, as it is an invisible enemy in front of us. He said the government is fighting covid-19 with all its might and ensuring that every government department is working day and night to ease the pain of the nation,” the statement said.

In his remarks Modi also urged people to register for the vaccine when their turn comes and ensure covid-appropriate behaviour at all times. “He added that this vaccine is an important means of protection against the coronavirus and will reduce the risk of serious illness,” the statement said.

With the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic spreading to the interiors, analysts say the economic fallout is likely to be far more severe than the first wave. Several rating agencies have already slashed their growth forecasts for Asia’s third largest economy.

Given the precarious state of the health infrastructure in rural areas, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has asked the government to prioritize testing and vaccination in these areas.

Another complicating factor is the people returning back to their villages due to the lockdowns imposed in the metropolitan cities. The Panchayati Raj ministry has reached out to the states to take preventive measures through panchayats and other rural local bodies.

Poonam Muttreja, executive director at Population Foundation of India, a non-profit health organization, said, “Lack of awareness and reluctance to submit to testing, treatment and vaccination makes the rural population more susceptible to covid-19. The problem is compounded by the fact that medical infrastructure is concentrated in urban areas Community Health Centres (CHCs) are not always easily accessible.”

“With only five hospital beds and 8.6 physicians for every 10,000 people in India, we are grossly underprepared for a crisis of this size. It is critical that the government urgently implements short and long-term measures that can strengthen rural health systems to address some of these challenges,” she said.

States such as Bihar (630,185 cases), Jharkhand (306,248) and Uttar Pradesh (1.58 million) are continuously reporting a surge in cases.

Rural populations from these states contribute the most to migrant labour in metropolitan cities. The surge in infections in rural Uttar Pradesh has also been linked to the flouting of covid-19 protocols during the panchayat elections held in April.

Rural India has already erased gains made since October, when covid infections had begun to decline, to record 2.84 million job losses in April for the salaried class alone. This is expected to impact overall rural consumption.

Modi was speaking while releasing the eighth instalment of the income support scheme that was initially meant for small and marginal farmers who own less than five acres (two hectares) of land. The scheme’s ambit was later widened to include all farmers wherein they receive three instalments of 2,000 each, every four months to help pay for cultivation costs and reducing debts.

neetu.s@livemint.com

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