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GANGTOK : While the world was debating whether to declare covid-19 as a pandemic, the Sikkim administration started mandatory screening at all entry points on 27 January.

The main reason for the heightened caution was the land border with China. “Prompt action was taken largely due to the fact that we share an elaborate border with China. Even the border with Nepal is porous," chief minister Prem Singh Golay said in a media briefing on Monday. “Sikkim was at a precarious position, so we acted early."

The abundance of caution has now led to an unexpected outcome. As on 14 April, Sikkim is the only Indian state without any recorded covid-19 positive case. More than 70 suspected samples were sent to laboratories in West Bengal and Assam and all of them have tested negative.

The border screening began with simple questions, including a person’s overseas travel history. If there was any, the person was swiftly put into isolation either at a government quarantine facility or was encouraged to self-isolate.

The entire society, meanwhile, accepted social distancing norms at various public engagements. Weddings and political events had minimum participation and most political outfits began to rely on online media briefings.

On 5 March, the Sikkim government banned the entry of foreign nationals even though the tourism season had just begun. By 17 March, Sikkim had gone into self-quarantine, a week before the nationwide lockdown.

The early action reduced chances of disease transmission. Banning the entry of tourists was a particularly difficult decision, considering the state’s heavy reliance on tourism. For instance, 118,000 domestic tourists visited Sikkim in March 2019.

The focus then shifted to the citizens, who were returning home from Delhi and other metropolises. Students and professionals returning home were directed to 14-day home quarantine and were monitored daily by local health workers.

Several instances of people hiding their travel history surfaced, but the district authorities took swift action in apprehending such individuals and put them under compulsory government quarantine for two weeks. And, this has worked wonders.

State health director-general Dr. Pempa Tshering Bhutia has set up a devoted surveillance team in every village, taking the aid of other government departments to track down such individuals who have been hiding their travel history. “Similar action was taken when the first case of covid-19 surfaced in North Bengal. We tracked 320 individuals who had travelled in the same flight as the North Bengal patient from Chennai to Bagdogra. We identified 12 who had deboarded that flight and entered Sikkim. They were all traced the next day, 6 of them were already under home quarantine, while the other 6 were put under compulsory government quarantine," he said.

Meanwhile, the state’s porous border stretches required a different type of attention – since the riverine belts especially offered opportunities for people to enter or exit Sikkim on foot. The vulnerable areas were those close to Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts. This was addressed by the police by enforcing constant patrolling along these stretches and also installing concertina wires at the porous points adjacent to Kalimpong district. Similar concertina wires are being placed in other identified locations like Rangpo river belt where people can cross through.

“The objective is that people will not go out and will not come in also," DIG Range Sonam Tenzing Bhutia. “It is not that we are securing ourselves only but it also secures the other side like Darjeeling and Kalimpong. We are also stopping people from our side from crossing into the other side."

Pankaj Dhungel is a journalist based in Gangtok.

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