Kerala's reverse quarantine worries elderly, calls grow for its dilution

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Velayudhan Nair, 72, a retired Kerala government official, is really agitated these days. His monthly outings to the state treasury in Thiruvananthapuram to receive his pension have been halted as the state government has implemented reverse quarantine. Nair used the day as an opportunity to frequent his favourite eating joint, and meet old colleagues.

“Last time when I went out a police officer told me next time he will book me. When I told him about my pension, he said these things have to be done online. I told him I am not a geek and he advised me to better learn it,” he said, adding his movements were restricted even though he followed all norms by using face mask, maintaining physical distance and using sanitisers to keep hands germ-free.

“Deprivation of travel is almost like incarceration,” complained another elderly person, adding it is a double blow as they face discrimination in house and outside also.

These complaints have surfaced after Kerala started implementing reverse quarantine, a way to isolate elderly from others to avoid catching possible coronavirus infection.

Mental health experts and geriatric care activists say reverse quarantine should be voluntary not mandatory. They warned it is taking a big toll on elderly and the ruthless implementation will have to be diluted. They say some incidents of locking up of elderly were reported in the state and people from the economically weaker section are worst affected.

“Reverse quarantine is not locking up elderly. We have given strict instructions and it should be done with full knowledge and consent of the people concerned. They have to be convinced it is for their safety,” said state health minister KK Shailaja, adding reverse quarantine is possible in houses where there are many rooms.

One among other problems is separating the grandchildren from their grandparents. Each family member will have to do her role to minimise chances of bringing virus to the household and if elders are at home they will have to be extra cautious.

“In reverse quarantine, there should be a mechanism to address emotional and social vacuum. We should be very careful while dealing with elderly population. There are possibilities of emotional breakdown and we have to address them,” said palliative care expert Dr MR Rajagopal.

He said reverse quarantine is a double-edged weapon which will have to be used judiciously otherwise after Covid-19 there will be a number of emotionally distressed people.

Experts working in coronavirus counselling centres say they do get maximum calls from elderly these days. “It is not isolation. It is a mechanism to protect them. This message will have to go to them. We have to ensure all their basic needs before they go in quarantine,” said Dr Soumya Raj, district mental health nodal officer in Ernakulam, adding they have an elaborate list of people belonging to high-risk group and that they are called regularly.

The state government had barred those above 60 from taking up work under MGNREGA. However, after complaints from self-help groups, it raised the age bar to 65.

More than 3 lakh MGNREGA workers are above 60 and 70 per cent of them are women, says the state social security mission. According to the 2011 census, 12.7 per cent of the 3.34 crore population in the state is above 60. But last year’s state economic review says 48 lakh people are above 60 years of age and out of these 15 per cent are above 80. A 2015 India population study says 1.85 lakh elderly people are staying alone in their homes in the state.

Health experts say though reverse quarantine is a tried and tested procedure to protect the elderly, its mindless implementation will bring more repercussions. In Kerala, out of 23 deaths 20 are above 60 years. The ICMR study says at least 52 per cent of the dead in the country are above 60 years.

Kerala was one of the states to implement reverse migration first.

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