infectious disease

Nipah fear still grips Kozhikode: Markets count their losses, buses and even hospitals go empty

Kerala government’s assurance that there is no need for panic has had little impact.

The Kerala government said on Sunday that no fresh Nipah virus infections had been reported in the last few days and there was no need for panic. The statement followed a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to assess the measures taken to contain the virus, which has in the past month infected 18 people and killed 16 of them – 13 in Kozhikode district and three in neighbouring Malappuram.

The Nipah virus causes fever and upper respiratory distress in humans that quickly escalates to encephalitis or inflammation of the brain, and in some cases myocarditis or inflammation of the heart. Its natural host is the fruit bat and it is transmitted through contact and transfer of body fluids. According to the World Health Organisation, there is “no vaccine for either humans or animals and the primary treatment is intensive supportive care”.

The first Nipah death in Kerala took place on May 5, and was confirmed by the National Institute of Virology in Pune on May 20. The two infected persons are being treated at the Government Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode while around 2,000 more are under observation on suspicion of having come in close contact with infected persons. Among the dead was Kozhikode nurse Lini Puthussery, who was infected by her patient and whose final letter to her husband went viral.

In Kozhikode and Malappuram, however, the fear of fresh infections remains palpable and the government’s assurance has made little difference. People here continue to stay indoors, coming out only to buy essentials. Business is down in the markets while few travel by bus and train.

Even the Government Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode, where 14 of the infected were treated, wears a deserted look. Hospital authorities said the facility used to attract over 3,000 patients a day but the number had come down drastically since May 20, when the presence of the Nipah virus was confirmed. “Less than 200 patients came here on Monday,” they said.

Ismail, who sells books and lottery tickets near the hospital entrance, attested to this, adding that his business had suffered as a result. “I used to earn Rs 500 before Nipah outbreak, now I can’t even get Rs 100,” he said.

Ismail has now taken to selling face masks at Rs 5 a piece, but there are few takers for these as well. “People come here wearing face masks,” he said. “A few people buy it from me.”

The Government Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode treated 200 patients on Monday compared to its usual volume of 3,000 a day.
The Government Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode treated 200 patients on Monday compared to its usual volume of 3,000 a day.

Bus travel down

The Nipah scare has taken a big toll on public transport in Kozhikode.

With many people avoiding bus travel for fear of contracting the virus from their fellow passengers, bus operators have been forced to cut down the number of trips by almost half on many routes here.

“People are scared to travel to places hit by the Nipah virus,” said K Radhakrishnan, general secretary of the Kozhikode District Bus Operators’ Association.

He said the average daily collection from each bus had plummeted from Rs 8,000 to Rs 3,000. “The daily collection is not enough to pay the labour wages. We cannot afford to run the service incurring losses,” he said. “With the drop in revenue, bus owners [have] decided to stop the service on many routes.”

Face masks are everywhere in Kozhikode.
Face masks are everywhere in Kozhikode.

Bitter times for fruit market

While business is down on the whole, fruit sales have been hit particularly hard in Kozhikode, which is Kerala’s largest fruit market. Rumours that the virus spreads through fruit bitten by bats have not helped.

According to All Kerala Fruit Merchants’ Association president PV Hamza, sales have plummetted 50% across the state in the last three weeks. “Fruit worth Rs 20 crore were sold in Kerala, but it slumped to less than Rs 10 crore,” he said. He added that Kozhikode accounted for daily sales worth Rs 2 crore but the sale volume had now dipped “below the Rs 1 crore mark. As a result, more than 30,000 retail fruit vendors in the district have incurred huge losses”.

Mango sellers seem to be the worst affected. “Mango is the favourite fruit of bats, believed to be reservoirs of the Nipah virus,” explained Hamza. “So customers struck it off their shopping list.”

According to reports, Kerala sources 90% of its fruits from other states.

Hamza said, “Trucks from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra used to bring 800 tonnes of mangoes to Kerala every day during the peak season. It has now come down to less than 400 tonnes.”

He added that he had “heard that ripe mangoes are rotting in warehouses in other states”.

A near-deserted shopping mall in Kozhikode.
A near-deserted shopping mall in Kozhikode.

Traders count losses

The blow to business from the Nipah virus follows losses from the demonetisation of high-value currency notes in 2016 and the hasty introduction of the Goods and Services Tax last year, according to the Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi, an organisation of traders.

K Sethumadhavan, the organisation’s district secretary in Kozhikode, said the timing was especially bad as traders were anticipating brisk sales because of Ramzan and the re-opening of schools after the summer break. Instead, “sales dropped more than 70% in the last three weeks”, he said.

Sweet Meat Street – Kozhikode’s main commercial hub with 1,640 registered shops and around 125 street vendors – has been left reeling. “The association estimates that traders lost Rs 45 crore due to the slump in business since May 20,” Sethumadhavan said. “[The] Nipah virus has dashed our hopes.”

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.