Odisha fights Covid-19 with advance tech tools, planning and effective execution

The Naveen Patnaik-led government is sharpening its battle against the Covid-19 pandemic by using high-end analytic tools, AI-based questionnaire and WhatsApp chatbot, among other technologies, to flatten the curve

Odisha has had a history of facing natural disasters and hence the administration is well-equipped to handle such disasters through SOPs. Covid-19, however, is a unique challenge – it affects human beings only, leaving all physical infrastructure untouched. “This is a first for the state and the world in general. We are evolving our response as we learn more about ways to tackle the pandemic,” says Asit Kumar Tripathy, Chief Secretary, Odisha.

The government has been driving the ‘Mo Sarkar’ and ‘5T’ projects for the past one-and-a-half years, which is all about changing the business process of the government and helping it to become transparent and efficient through technology. EC spoke with Manoj Kumar Mishra, Secretary, Electronics and Information Technology, Odisha, who shared how the state is using technology to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Edited Excerpts:

Manoj Kumar Mishra, Secretary, Department of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of Odisha

Please brief us on the preparedness of the Odisha government to the battle against the pandemic. Odisha government’s incentive scheme for the people coming from abroad has been much talked about. How did it help to make sure people complete their quarantine period?

We had time to witness and learn from the experience of the coronavirus-affected countries. The government was quick to realise and recognise that the coronavirus would only come to Odisha via external sources i.e. through travellers coming back from foreign countries. The first statewide information, education and communication (IEC) outreach about the coronavirus in Odisha was conducted on March 8, the same day when the first international passenger was screened in the state. Two days later, the state government declared Covid-19 to be a ‘state disaster’. The state also empowered public officials to combat the spread under the Disaster Management Act 2005 and imposed the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 where necessary.

Even before the entire country bore the Covid-19 brunt; Odisha became the first state to enforce lockdown and incentivise self-declaration. Odisha incentivised the quarantine scheme and offered INR 15,000 to people coming from abroad and who declared their travel history on the portal. The government received an overwhelming response from the travellers largely because of the incentive. A total of 4,600 people were registered on the portal till March 26, before the international flights operations were suspended in the country.

We deployed all our resources to ensure travellers complete the quarantine period. The call centre team called them up thrice a day for thorough monitoring of their quarantine. Incentivisation literally helped us to keep travellers inside quarantine centres. We quickly set up testing protocols in place and started Covid-19 tests and the percentage of positive cases in Odisha turned out to be miniscule. By the end of it, we saw that some of the states had become hotspots of the coronavirus. From March 10, we started screening passengers coming to Odisha from states like Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi through trains. We sent them text messages and got 40,000 of them registered on the portal.

Odisha has always been a pioneer in managing disasters through cutting edge technology. What kind of innovative tech measures were taken by the IT department to handle the coronavirus pandemic?

When some of the Nizamuddin returnees arrived in Odisha, it prompted the government to clamp down curfew in three districts to restrict people inside their homes and the situation was fairly under control at that time. Meanwhile, the IT department deployed an Artificial Intelligence-based questionnaire, which was part of the CoViD 360 solution of the consortium of Deloitte, SalesForce and Diagnostic Robotics.

It was widely used in Odisha and follow up calls were made to the people to assess their condition. We also created a WhatsApp chatbot to disseminate information to people to combat any kind of fake information, and it was received well by everyone. Odisha’s State Covid-19 dashboard is one of the best across the country.

The IT department deployed high-end analytic tools with the help of SAS and it came out with predictive scenario. The government has also roped in engineering institutes’ professors and students to get their expertise to handle the pandemic. We expected a large influx of migrants workers as we are a labour exporting state after lifting of the lockdown on May 3, we launched a portal for registration of names to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The migrant workers will have to register their name and address in the portal covid19.odisha.gov.in. Anyone who wants to return to Odisha after lockdown via any means (air/train/road) is required to register by filling up the form online and offline. It is now managed by the home department. Based on assessment through call centres and registration, the government created more than 8000 temporary medical facilities across each Gram Panchayat and urban body to help people get quarantined after their arrival.

Besides, we have also pitched in hotels to accommodate travellers who wish to pay and stay in such facilities for quarantine. It is because of the preparedness of readying quarantine centres, Odisha is well managing the migrant labour issue. Odisha is also a labour exporting state like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and now labourersare getting back to the state. The government is keeping a close eye on the development.

Furthermore, in partnership with UNICEF India, we have unveiled a unique website “https://covidsangramee.odisha.gov.into invite volunteers to strengthen our state’s fight against the Covid-19.

We have also setup a dedicated telemedicine helpline facility which is an IVR system based module that enables the dial pad for identification, segmentation and routing of callers to the appropriate person. Anyone who is suffering from cough, fever, tiredness, and respiratory problems can dial the telemedicine helpline (14410) to seek medical advices from the qualified doctors, who have registered themselves to provide medical access to the suspected Covid-19 cases. Over 300 doctors have so far registered themselves to provide voluntary services to people with Covid-19 symptoms.

We also recently launched ePass for people who are stranded in Odisha and need to travel to other states. The can log into http://covid19.odisha.gov.in and apply and after online approval, ePass with passenger and vehicle details will be sent to the applicant though SMS and email.

Please shed some light on the coronavirus tests being done in the state. 

The state crossed the mark of 50,000 testings on May 7. While, the national average of coronavirus testing stands at 983 tests per million, it is 1150 in Odisha’s case. We had only one testing centre at RMRC, Bhubaneswar, which is the only agency having wherewithal to do the Covid-19 tests. Currently, we have developed adequate testing facilities. Odisha is one of the first states to have procured sufficient numbers of PPEs, ventilators, masks, sanitisers and other key equipment to battle against the Covid-19. We are doing around 5,000 tests per day. Efforts are continuous for increasing testing infrastructure. Even an advance state like Kerala registers one positive case per 75 tests, while Odisha registers a positive case per 230 tests. So testing per positive case is extremely high in the state.

What are the key focus areas to contain the Covid-19 in the state?

Apart from what I mentioned in my previous answer i.e. ramping up testing, tracing and isolating, the purpose of lockdown can be defined into three categories—to flatten the curve by making people understand the value of social distancing, strengthen the healthcare infrastructure and communicate with the citizens through digital means. IT department’s role was to take this communication to the people. We have been working with the state I&PR department and are able to substantially take this message to the last mile citizen. The government is trying to decrease the possibility of community transmission. Creation of hotspot zones, hassle free home delivery of services, encouraging people to wear mask in public areas are some of the priority areas of the government.

How did the IT department ensure the government functions smoothly in the lockdown? Can you brief us about tech tools that the department has been using amidst the pandemic?

It was a great challenge to ensure the government functions uninterrupted after the nationwide lockdown was imposed. We operated in the large part of the lockdown for the past one-and-a-half months with an average of 20 per cent of the workforce at the Odisha secretariat. VPN (virtual private network) access was given to around 2,000 officials of 46 departments of the state government to enable them do work from home. All the government files have become online and this is not new for us. We have been doing this for the past nine years so working online was never a herculean task. For collaborative working, the government tied up with Cisco for video conferencing and Microsoft, and both of them helped immensely to the Odisha government by offering extremely good services and given free licenses for the operations. At a time when the railways, airlines and roadways have stopped, internet is the only thing which kept us together in the lockdown.

The government has been driving the ‘Mo Sarkar’ and ‘5T’ projects for the past one-and-a-half years which is all about changing business process of the government and help it to become transparent and efficient through technology. Almost every major department has become online and dispensing their services online. It has become the new normal. We have prepared a digital infrastructure where citizens need not to visit the government establishments rather the latter would approach the citizens to resolve their issues.

We have also unveiled e-pass service for those who want to go outside Odisha and the powers to issue these passes have been given to Sub Collectors and Tehsildars. We have done end-to-end e-pass facility and people apply and receive these passes online if they fulfil the terms and conditions.

The state has further designated ‘Covid Hospitals’ across Odisha, with 34 functional in every district. The state has adopted GIS mapping to have all Covid infrastructure properly geo mapped for use of people as well as the administration. With GIS mapping visualisation of assets, granulated to GO levels, it gives single frame snapshots on adequacy of the infrastructures. Overlapping these maps with testing population and affected population gives the administration insights into planning for infra on short and medium terms.

How did the department manage to give key directives to the staff in the remote parts where poor connectivity has always been a challenge amidst the pandemic?

We have partially fibered the state through Bharatnet phase one and phase two is under implementation. All blocks in the state are connected with the optical fiber. The government aims to reach to the Gram Panchayat level and half of the state is already connected and the remaining work would soon resume as the norms have been relaxed in the lockdown. In another three months, we will be able to cover all the Gram Panchayats. The government is trying to provide similar digital facilities to the villages at par with the state capital.

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