For the Thirunelly panchayat in Wayanad, its tribal population was the fragile flame it had quite painstakingly guarded against the COVID-19 winds. The vigil has failed.
A 40-year-old woman from the Kattunaicker tribe tested positive, the first tribal to be infected by the virus in the tribal-dominant panchayat.
Her test had turned positive on June 29 but the Health Department had not included her in the list of fresh cases put out on June 30. Her sample was taken once more and this, too, has now tested positive. Sources said the results of the second test came on June 30 midnight. She will in all likelihood be included in today's tally.
The woman had returned from Virajpet in Karnataka on June 23 with four others, including her husband. They had been working in a ginger plantation in Virajpet for the last five months. It is usual for tribals in Thirunelli to work in ginger and coffee plantations in places just across the border like Virajpet (Kodagu) and Heggadadevankote (Mysore).
The woman's team came near Wayanad's Bavali check-post in a lorry on June 23 and from there, instead of reporting to health officials at Bavali, they took a secret forest path to enter the Bavali village. They took an autorickshaw from Baval and visited three shops. After buying provisions and other items they hired a taxi to take them to their colony in Aranappara.
"The residents of the colony were furious and they did not allow them to enter. The woman's husband was drunk and he started showering abuses. We called up the police and the health officials. It was eight in the evening and we could not get the ambulance to transport them to Muthanga," said K Ananthan Nambiar, the Aranappara ward member.
The five were shifted to Muthanga for tests the next day. But by then they had got into a relative's house in the colony, had food and even slept there," Nambiar said.
All the five were quarantined in a lodge in Muthanga. A week later, the results came and the woman alone was declared positive. "Since she was the only positive case, her sample was taken once more. That, too, has now come positive," Thirunelli panchayat president Mayadevi said.
Over 300 tribals in the area had returned in the last one-and-half-months from the ginger and coffee plantations they had gone to work. "All of them, even when they came through secret forest paths, were detected and promptly shifted to quarantine centres. We have never allowed anyone to enter the colonies as that would be disastrous. This was the first family that we could not effectively keep out of a colony," Mayadevi said.
Earlier, too, there was a COVID-19 scare in Thirunelli's tribal colonies. It was when the son-in-law of a superspreader, truck driver from Tamil Nadu's Koyambedu market who had transmitted to 13 people, was declared positive. The man had a tea shop that was frequented by tribals in Thirunelli area.
Contacts were quickly traced and 78 people were designated as high-risk and low-risk categories. The samples of 52 high-risk cases were sent for testing. One person was declared positive and he was not from the tribal community.
Just when it seemed it was safe, Thirunelli has recorded its first tribal positive case.