In fits and starts

After the initial lethargic response to the sudden migrant onrush, the State government retrieves lost ground to launch containment and surveillance measures, besides providing relief to the stranded migrants.

Published : Apr 24, 2020 07:00 IST

People waiting  on the banks of the Yamuna to be transferred to a temporary shelter in New Delhi on April 15.

People waiting on the banks of the Yamuna to be transferred to a temporary shelter in New Delhi on April 15.

Visuals of migrant workers marching towards their home towns from Delhi will haunt the memory of the nation for a long time to come. Those who could not leave the National Capital Region and scavenged for discarded food or slept under the flyover along the Yamuna, will find it hard to trust the city again. They were made acutely aware that their only value in the city was labour with no cushion to fall back on in the absence of social protection. It was only in their own villages that they would find their identities.

Following the sudden imposition of a lockdown by the Centre, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi set up 658 hunger relief centres and 62 temporary relief shelters in government schools. Government representatives rescued workers stranded in Kudesiya Ghat, Kashmere Gate and other places and shifted them to shelter homes. But this was hardly enough.

Adding fuel to an already distressed situation, three porta cabins of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) that were housing migrant labourers were gutted. The previous day the migrants given shelter there had a confrontation with the civil defence staff over food distribution and space. Some said a crowd of rioters came from outside and set fire to the cabins. The matter is under investigation. Seven people have been arrested in this connection.

With over 1,500 COVID-19 cases, Delhi became the second worst-affected region in India. As on April 16, the total number of cases touched 1,640 with 38 deaths. Fifty-two persons recovered. Delhi had its task cut out: to control the spread of the virus and provide relief to the stranded.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal read the writing on the wall. After images of hundreds of migrants gathered at the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal amidst the lockdown stung his government, he decided to get his messaging right. He welcomed the extension of the lockdown until May 3 and asked the migrants to stay put. He told them not to believe rumours that inter-State buses would ferry them across the border. He also told the media that he would conduct online briefings until the lockdown was lifted.

To create awareness about the pandemic, the government issued full-page colour advertisements in leading newspapers and put up hoardings on roads. Kejriwal planned to visit some containment zones to take stock of the situation.

The government announced a five-point plan to deal with the infection,, including treating 39,000 patients and undertaking “rapid random” testing in hotspots.

“We need to learn from other countries how to tackle this disease. We need to be three steps ahead of the disease.... We will monitor people who have been asked to quarantine themselves and also seal areas that see a spike in cases to reduce the spread. We have also tied up with the police to track the mobile phones of those who are in home quarantine to ensure that they followed the protocol,” Kejriwal said.

He surmised that if the number of cases in Delhi went up to 30,000, the government would take over 8,000 beds in hospitals, 12,000 hotel rooms, and accommodate about 10,000 patients in banquet halls and dharamshalas. He directed the District Magistrates to identify paid quarantine facilities in their areas. His government booked 767 rooms in three hotels—Welcome Hotel, Vivanta by Taj and Piccadily—where the beneficiary could pay Rs.3,100, excluding taxes, for quarantine.

Apart from Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, Safdarjung Hospital and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Trauma Centre, which come under the Central government, the government designated Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Hospital, Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital, Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, Rajiv Gandhi Super Specialty Hospital, Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan Hospital and GB Pant Hospital for the treatment of COVID cases. A private medical laboratory, Dr Dangs Lab, set up a drive-through service to test potential patients in Punjabi Bagh (West) central market at the ICMR-authorised price of Rs.4,500.

While exact figures were not available, independent surveys showed that compared to other States, barring Kerala, Delhi fared well in the total number of tests conducted, helped by the large number ofprivate testing centers.

According to the Delhi Health Secretary,1.5 lakh personal protective equipment units were ordered and 3,500 were procured every day. A tender has been finalised for two lakh more kits and an order issued for five lakh N95 masks, of which 25,000 will be supplied every week for the use of frontline health workers and health professionals.

The government approved the use of plasma technique for treatment on a trial basis to save the lives of critical COVID-19 patients.

As hospitals suspended outpatient departments, the government launched a 24x7 free online medical consultation services, with CallDoc app, to help patients connect with doctors via mobile app for their non-emergency medical needs. Over 100 doctors have offered their services for free via this app, according to Health Minister Satyendar Jain. But the number is far below the actual requirement of non-COVID patients.

As all the major hospitals were converted into exclusive COVID centres, patients with other ailments were asked to vacate their beds at short notice. Cancer and tuberculosis patients requiring urgent attention were left in the lurch. “While it is important to provide best possible care for COVID patients, it should not be at the cost of other needy patients, compromising both ongoing and emergency care that they are entitled to,” said V.R. Raman, national convener, Public Health Resource Network.

Dr Vandana Prasad, a public health activist and community paediatrician, said: “Public hospitals should be taking full responsibility of the patients, identify alternative hospitals and beds for them and arrange ambulances to transport them. There is an existing system of free beds available in the private sector. Why were such provisions not utilised?” Despite the government’s tall claims on PPE procurement, several health care professionals, including one doctor from Maulana Azad Medical, two from hospitals in Ghaziabad and three employees of Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, contracted the infection. An AIIMS employee told Frontline that a person who had tested positive did not reveal this and thereby put the entire casualty ward staff at risk. They had to be quarantined en masse. “They say AIIMS is the best hospital in the country. If this is the situation here, imagine what it would be like in other parts of the country,” the person said on condition of anonymity. Although the AIIMS received PPE kits, they were not distributed to all health care workers. Some of them were stitching their own PPE suits, one employee said.

The Delhi State Cancer Institute became a cluster for virus transmission and had to be shut down. More than 45 of its employees were quarantined, of whom 29, including three doctors, tested positive. Four patients, who were admitted to the hospital, and the attendant of a patient also tested positive. The source of infection was traced to a doctor at the institute, whose brother and sister-in-law had returned from the United Kingdom. A two-year-old boy, too, tested positive in the hospital.

While the Centre declared entire Delhi a Red Zone, the Delhi government further identified nine districts as hotspots with 57 containment zones. After declaring an area a containment zone, the government launched Operation SHIELD—sealing, home quarantine, isolation and tracking, essential supplies, local sanitisation and door-to-door checking. Residents in these zones were not allowed to leave their homes. The zones were sanitised using 10 spraying machines imported from Japan and 50 obtained from the Delhi Jal Board. The Delhi Health Department said the SHIELD measures had freed the city’s first hotspot, Dilshad Garden, of the infection.

Simultaneously, the government set up the Corona Foot Warriors Containment and Surveillance Force. Members of the task force will visit households in all the districts to identify suspected cases. Each team consists of five members, who include a booth-level officer, a civil defence volunteer, a police constable, a sanitation worker and an anganwadi worker. There will be 13,750 such teams to advise people to practise physical distancing and wear masks when going out.

The government said the Food and Supplies Department had already distributed almost 100 per cent of the entitled allocation for April among public distribution system beneficiaries to meet their requirements during the lockdown. The government received close to 20,000 calls on its helpline in connection with coronavirus, it said.

While Residents’ Welfare Associations framed their own rules on a daily basis, stigmatisation associated with the virus gripped parts of Delhi. In Greater Noida, a 25-year-old man, who coughed while playing Ludo, was shot at and injured for “trying to spread” coronavirus.

Two women doctors of Safdarjung Hospital were assaulted by a 42-year-old interior designer who accused them of “spreading coronavirus”.

After a pizza delivery boy tested positive for the virus, 72 families of South Delhi were put under home quarantine.

Although there was no official ban, meat was not allowed to be sold. The government tried to launch an odd-even policy along with physical distancing in wholesale vegetable and fruit markets but it was reportedly not followed.

The religious congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi’s Nizamuddin became a coronavirus cluster with more than a 1,000 cases across 17 States linked to the event. The Islamic sect’s leader, Maulana Saad Kandhalvi, was booked for culpable homicide and money laundering. He is expected to join the investigation after his quarantine ends.

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