6 Apr 2020

Covid19 Safety for Agri-markets in India

Life can only be sustained with food, and food supply is dependent on agricultural trade, which is routed through wholesale markets (mandis).

Typically, the operations in mandis involves crowds and close quarters working practices. This, in the age of COVID-19 raises some concerns. Yet, the mandis must function to maintain supply of agri-produce.

To keep the agri-markets safe, a few basic suggestions are listed. If readers have other ideas, please feel free to add in comments.

  • Position multiple portable handwashing stations, with ample stock of detergent and water supply. The handwashing stations can be placed at the entrance for a wash before entering the markets, as well dispersed in other locations inside the mandi
  • Initiate timed ringing of alarms and/or make announcements to instill the practice of handwashing at regular intervals
  • To limit hand-to-mouth contact, stop practice of sampling or tasting produce in the markets, unless the it is personally washed
  • It is not necessary to use medical face masks. However, a layered cloth cover (like thick dupattas or gamachas) is recommended when in proximity with others and such face covering should also be regularly washed with soap and hot water. If working gloves are used, these can also be washed with soap and reused
  • Mark off recommended distance at intervals with paint/chalk/tape for queue management to assist social distancing. This should be done at each trading point, loading / unloading point, rest rooms and all other common areas.
  • Security guards in mandis can remind visitors to maintain social distancing and to avoid frequently touching face with hands
  • Increase the distance between open vending stalls or transaction points where possible to avoid unnecessary grouping of people
  • Stagger market timings - to this effect, entry schedule and passes can be issued in advance. The meal timings of mandi workers can also be staggered
  • Allow external premises as stop-gap markets, away from existing establishments to prevent crowding in present markets. External warehouses and cold stores can be designated for this purpose
  • Where possible, allow buyers to route their orders in advance and direct the vehicles carrying produce to bypass the mandis and supply directly to the next level buyer, to minimise the loading/unloading operations inside the markets
  • Procurement teams could assign collection points at multiple first-mile locations near farms and arrange to pick-up the produce, rather than pursue traditional practice of having farmers congregate in mandi premises
  • Allow existing traders to demarcate temporary trading areas positioned along highways so that farmers can be relieved of their produce outside of existing mandi premises which are constrained for working space
  • Discourage any individuals exhibiting symptoms of the illness from coming to the mandis. If these are farmers with urgent need to sell, alternate arrangements above can be followed
  • Commonly touched surfaces, like ATMs, tables, chairs, door knobs, etc. should be regularly disinfected. The guidelines to disinfect common public places by MoHFW should be followed
  • Eliminate unnecessary touch points like table clothes and other covers or decorations. If tokens are used for transactions, disinfect regularly as well the tools such as bag hooks, weighing scales, etc.
  • Whenever possible, avoid handling money and conduct digital transactions
  • Set-up screening centres at mandis keeping individual records of visitors, as it can help health services when it initiates focus group testing
  • Replenish first-aid kits regularly and handle minor working accidents to avoid adding unnecessary load at local hospitals

The above initial points are merely suggestions and any guidelines put by the authorities should be followed diligently. Any guidelines may be updated as more about COVID-19 is learned and latest update should be seen.

Here, it will be pertinent to review that the novel coronavirus is a respiratory infection and spread by contact with respiratory droplets. There is a fine distinction, between droplets transmission and airborne transmission. Airborne transmission generally infers to that by smaller sized particles (droplet nuclei <5μm in diameter) which can remain in the air for a while and can transmit over distances greater than 1 metre –  see scientific brief by WHO. Respiratory droplets refer to larger sized particles (>5-10 μm in diameter) that do not remain in the air for long or travel more than 1 meter (unless in an aerosol environment). Heavy exhalation, like when shouting, sneezing or singing, can force the larger droplets a little farther.

COVID-19 infection is transmitted by respiratory droplets, when contact is made with such droplets, mainly by close interaction an infected person, or when surfaces exposed to such droplets are touched and then contact is made with eyes, nose or mouth. In fact, transmission through fomites (inanimate surfaces or objects that have the virus on it) is not the main way the coronavirus spreads as per CDC.

In case of the general public, the risk of catching this virus is highest when in close range of an infected person. Therefore, physical distancing is an obvious and first order of priority - as an infected person can be anyone - with other precautions like handwashing and covering of mouth & nose. The latter is important to restrict the exhaled respiratory droplets carrying the virus, from transmitting to others, including in case of asymptomatic individuals. In most circumstances, a safe distance of at least 1 metre is recommended by MoHFW and WHO. Additional special protection is needed where the work involves treating and nursing COVID-19 patients as the exposure incidence is much higher and to larger virus loads.

There were recent news reports that groups of individuals were sprayed with unknown chemicals by people in hazmat suits, in the hope to disinfect them. Such spraying or hosing down is okay to disinfect the exterior or to wash off surface contaminants or germs, but is pointless in case of internal pathogens. Use of common disinfectants for this can also add to health hazards - danger of damaging skin or eyes and from inhaling a chemical mist, with risk of triggering allergic reactions or other complications.

In fact, a very fine spray of fluids may also help suspend the droplets in the air a little longer to aid the spread. Besides, the mist will not reach the virus hidden in nooks and cranny of skin (which is why a fair amount of scrubbing is needed with soap when washing hands).

Most importantly, surface spraying or hosing a person cannot sanitise or wash away the coronavirus that is inside the respiratory tract. If a person is infected with COVID-19, then with the very next breathe, he/she would still exhale droplets containing the virus, which can again settle on surrounding objects.

Spraying on people will only lend a false sense of security in case of coronavirus. The appropriate steps to take are to maintain safe distance, wash hands with soap before touching your face, and use face covering to make it improbable for the droplets to travel far.

The agri-markets may pursue the same as being done in large cold stores and warehousing operations. The markets dealing with livestock are not specifically covered above & will require similar precautions.

Please also review related information from Ministry of Health & Family Welfare:

Advisory - Social Distancing (16.03.2020) | Guidelines on use of masks by public (11.03.2020) | When and How to wear mask? | Guidelines on disinfection of common public places including offices (29.03.2020) | Advisory & Manual on use of Homemade Protective Cover for Face & Mouth (03.04.2020)

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