A fence restricts the entry of outsiders into Muroichhara Khasia village in Moulvibazar district. No cases of Covid-19 have been recorded among 40,000 ethnic Khasia people in 90 villages in northeast Bangladesh. (Photo: Mintu Deshwara)
Thousands of ethnic Khasia Christians continue to score a rare victory against Covid-19 in Bangladesh, a country still struggling to contain the deadly virus with thousands of infections and dozens of deaths daily.
While the pandemic had infected nearly 320,000 people and caused 4,383 deaths in Bangladesh as of Sept. 4, no infections have been recorded among some 40,000 Khasia people living in 90 villages in Sylhet division in the northeast.
Enforcement of strict lockdown measures and mandatory health guidelines have been key to a successful battle against Covid-19 in 90 Khasia punjis (clustered forested villages), community leaders say.
When the government declared a nationwide shutdown on March 23, village heads decided to go for a strict lockdown.
“We have more than 150 people in our punji and we sat together to decide about necessary actions. The entry points of the punji were closed and restrictions on movement was imposed,” Monica Khongla, 40, the headwoman of Meghatila, told UCA News.
Handwritten notices were posted in the village to warn away visitors including people from other punjis, vendors of daily essentials were banned and all vendors and grocers were strictly told to wear masks.
All residents of this punji in Moulvibazar district are Catholics belonging to Sylhet Diocese. About one quarter of Khasias in Bangladesh are Catholics and the rest are Protestants, according to church sources.
Monica’s two daughters were studying in capital Dhaka and living in hostels before Covid-19. They returned to the village on March 17.
For three months, even priests and nuns who make regular pastoral visits to the village were not allowed. On Sundays, villagers held prayer gatherings in the village chapel. Recently, priests and nuns have been allowed to visit on a limited scale following health guidelines.
“By the grace of God and thanks to our strong actions, none of the villagers have been infected. Other villages followed the same process and people have been saved,” said Monica, a betel leaf planter.
People outside the community mocked the Khasia for their extreme caution but villagers ignored them and reaped the benefits, she said, adding that the lockdown will continue in the village as long as it is needed.
Dr. Anisur Rahman, assistant director of the Department of Health in Sylhet, said Khasia people have set an example in the battle against the pandemic.
“Generally, Khasia people live a segregated life from mainstream society, which has become a blessing for them, and they have won against the pandemic. In terms of following lockdown and health codes, the Khasia community has become a good example,” Rahman told UCA News.
Oblate Bishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze of Sylhet said that in addition to the Khasia people’s health awareness and cleanliness, the Church’s initiatives for building awareness were vital during the pandemic.
“Naturally, the Khasia maintain cleanliness in their family and social life. During this crucial time, they have decided on what is best for their safety, and the diocese has reached out to 30 punjis to make them aware. All these efforts have paid off,” Bishop D’Cruze told UCA News.
Despite restrictions, Khasia people were able to continue betel leaf cultivation and business, their main livelihood, following health guidelines that have been crucial for them, the prelate added.
Khasia is a matriarchal ethnic group found in the Indian state of Meghalaya and Bangladesh. They live a segregated life in hilly, forested villages and mostly rely on betel leaf cultivation for a livelihood.
The Khasia are a distinctive people, short of stature and fair-complexioned with black eyes. They are strongly attached to their language and culture and are known to be a disciplined group, according to Banglapedia, the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh.