State of vigil in Maharashtra

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Train commuters in Mumbai travel to work on March 12, ignoring the State government’s advisory to maintain physical distance in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Aadesh Chouhari

In Maharashtra, going by rumours, people began to suspect that the Uddhav Thackeray government was hushing up the real extent of the contagion. As on March 21, the State reported 62 confirmed cases of infection and there was the declaration that more cases were likely by the end of the month when more than 25,000 Indians from the Gulf countries would disembark in Mumbai.

A Health Department official says, “Why would we hush up numbers? Cases are being monitored. Yes, it is quite possible that there are many cases we don’t know of but you cannot call that a hush-up. We are spreading awareness, and doctors and nurses are working on a war footing.”

It is a gargantuan task. “Obviously the virus had the element of surprise and we can only react to it. Now we are learning more and that is why you see the medical and physical distancing advisories,” the official said.

Mumbai, with a population of more than 20 million is an area of great concern for the country. Schools, gyms, swimming pools and malls have been closed. The Railways cancelled 39 long-distance trains and raised the price of platform tickets by five times in order to deter crowds. The municipality decided that shops selling essential items would remain open while stores selling non-essential goods would be open every alternate day. The Catholic Church is conducting the Sunday mass online. Most of the mosques have shut their doors for community prayer.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) sent teams to housing societies to check if any of its residents had returned from travel abroad or within the country. Cases from high-risk countries were noted and told to go to Kasturba Hospital. Others were told to visit their doctors and opt for voluntary quarantine of two weeks. In Mumbai, Kasturba Hospital, dedicated to infectious diseases, is the only government hospital with an isolation facility. When asked about the facilities in the hospital following the death of a 64-year-old man from Ghatkopar in Mumbai, who tested positive for coronavirus, on March 17, a civic official told the media that the isolation facility was set up according to Central government norms and had invasive and non-invasive ventilators. However, there was no dedicated ICU for coronavirus patients. While there is no shortage of coronavirus testing kits and the staff are trained, it is inadequate for the vast population of the city.

The BMC has opened another 20-bed isolation unit at HBT Trauma Care Hospital in the northern suburb of Jogeshwari. Nine private hospitals and one railway facility have been instructed to set up isolation wards. Opening new wards will take time because protective clothing has to be obtained, protocols have to be fixed and staff have to be trained. The hospitals have to be ready to receive patients who have been screened at airports and are considered likely cases. Eight new testing facilities will be opened. The BMC is the only civic body in the country to bear the entire expenditure of treating patients in its hospital. It has capped the charges levied by private hospitals for treatment of COVID-19 cases at Rs.4,000 or 50 per cent of the actual fee, whichever is less. In all, 100 beds have been reserved in seven private hospitals for coronavirus cases. The government plans to turn hostels and guesthouses of Rashtriya Chemical Fertilizers, Hindustan Petroleum, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and so on, into quarantine facilities.

By and large the government advisories have been practical, doable and reliant on the citizens’ sense of social duty. The BMC released a plan according to which shops in various areas would be closed in a phased manner. Medical and grocery shops are exempt from closure.

Parul Gandhi, a small entrepreneur who used to own a glove and mask manufacturing unit in Gujarat, says she and other manufacturers were made to close down their units some years ago. “We used to make gloves and masks but the competition from China was so strong that I had no option but to close it down. I had 50 workers and had to let them go. Our government’s taxes and other stipulations killed the business. Most of us became importers, and we all imported from China. Now China is not delivering and so we have a shortage. The manufacturing industry in India has been strangled by cheap Chinese goods. Maybe coronavirus will teach the government to respect its own manufacturers,” she said.

Some small-scale industries in the Palghar industrial zone have now responded to the demand for masks. From a daily production of around two lakh three-ply surgical masks, they are now making close to 10 lakh a day by working double shifts.

The patient who died on March 17 had tested positive for coronavirus on March 11. He was treated in the ICU of Hinduja Hospital but was shifted to Kasturba Hospital. He died because of bilateral pneumonia complications that resulted in cardiac arrest. The man had travelled to Dubai on February 22 and come back on March 5. Three days after his return he developed a fever with a cough and had difficulty in breathing. Tests conducted by his doctors were inconclusive but a throat swab sent to Kasturba Hospital showed up positive. His wife and son are now under treatment at Kasturba Hospital. No one was allowed at his funeral except the municipal staff who wore protective suits and wrapped the body in a plastic sheet before cremation. They were heavily disinfected afterwards. A 59-year-old man, who had returned from the Philippines, also tested positive and is in a critical state and on a ventilator.

Pune district has recorded 22 cases, 12 in the industrial zone of Pimpri-Chinchwad and 10 in Pune. The district authorities decided to send all passengers landing at Pune airport from international destinations to hospital quarantine for 24 hours regardless of their health status. The Divisional Commissioner warned of strict action against those who violated home quarantine norms. Small businesses have already been affected. Tea stalls and street food outlets have stopped functioning. Three crucial sectors that are already showing signs of a downturn are the share market, real estate and the film industry. The share market plunged 2,000 points in the first hour of trading on March 16 after the government announced that India had 110 reported cases (India now has 293 cases). While markets are uncommonly sensitive to any change, the effect of the virus has been taken seriously by the Reserve Bank of India, which has infused Rs.1 lakh crore into the market. This is an effort to mitigate the adverse impact of the virus on the market. With the cancellation of film shootings and theatre screenings, film industry experts estimate the initial losses at around Rs.800 crore.

While the administration’s response so far has been satisfactory, given the novel nature of the virus, how does it plan to curtail the spread of the virus in residential slums, where the population lives cheek by jowl and where physical distancing may not work? More than anything, the administration needs to be vigilant about fear-based violence. Railway officials said 18 passengers, who had been stamped at the Mumbai airport with the words “Home Quarantine”, were asked to disembark from trains by fellow passengers and officials. It was done in a non-violent manner. Such actions should not turn into vigilantism.