Confusion in the capital

Print edition : May 22, 2020

People queuing up to buy liquor in New Delhi on May 6 despite an increase in price per bottle by 70 per cent. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

At Azadpur mandi on April 30. The wholesale markets in Delhi were shut for a few days for sanitisation after 15 cases of COVID-19 were found in the mandi. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The relaxed restrictions of phase 3 of the lockdown have not made life in Delhi easier or less worrying.

As of May 4, Delhi continues to be the third worst affected region in India after Maharashtra and Gujarat, with 4,898 cases of COVID-19, of which there are1,431 recoveries and 64 deaths. Over the preceding week, the number of new infections grew by an average of 7 per cent every day, while the recovery rate was 29.22 per cent, which is slightly better than the national rate of recovery.

With the daily surge in cases not abating, the Central government declared as red zones all 11 of Delhi’s districts. The State government further demarcated a dynamic list of 100 containment zones within the city, which as of May 4, has fallen to 90. No activity apart from emergency services is allowed in these zones. Outside them, certain activities are allowed as per the Centre’s guidelines.

As the third phase of the lockdown began on May 4, a considerable number of relaxations were allowed outside the containment zones. But confusion prevailed. While shops selling essential goods were allowed to operate all over the National Capital Region, shops selling non-essential goods, neighbourhood shops and standalone shops inside residential colonies were also allowed to operate. When some of these shops opened on May 4, policemen came and forced them to down their shutters. A shopkeeper told Frontline: “I thought my shop came under that criteria, but the police came with lathis and made me close it. We repair and rent out air conditioners. Air coolers are in the essential category list but air conditioners are not.” Since there was a discrepancy between the stated rules and what was being allowed on the ground, most shopkeepers did not reopen for business but decided to play the wait-and-watch game.

Despite the relaxations, the city did not witness the kind of activity one might have expected to resume. But even the marginal increase of traffic on the roads prompted some mediapersons to declare that people were flouting rules. Some private offices opened with a staff strength of 30 per cent. There were long queues outside liquor shops, which the administration was ill-prepared for. The police resorted to lathicharge and threatened to seal the areas altogether.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal declared that he would seal all the areas where people were not following physical-distancing rules. Soon afterwards, his administration announced an astounding 70 per cent extra tax as a “special corona fee” on liquor sold in the capital from May 5 onwards.

State governments are opening liquor stores mainly because they have suffered huge revenue losses due to the lockdown and a major chunk of their revenue comes from the sale of liquor.

The Kejriwal government also increased value-added tax (VAT) on petrol by Rs.1.67 a litre and on diesel by Rs.7.10 a litre, thereby raising the price of petrol to Rs.71.26 a litre and diesel to Rs.69.39 a litre. While States such as Haryana and Tamil Nadu also hiked VAT on fuel, Delhi’s hike was the steepest. In the coming days, this is expected to inflate the cost of products across the shelf.

The prices of fruits, vegetables and other staples had already been hovering at dangerous levels in Delhi after its borders with neighbouring States, especially Haryana, were sealed. The wholesale markets in Delhi were also shut for a few days for sanitisation after 15 cases of COVID-19 were found in the Azadpur mandi. Uncertainties over an extension of the lockdown triggered panic buying and hoarding, which led to a further hike in the prices of commodities.

Meanwhile, the Kejriwal government entered into a tussle with residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) over the entry of service workers such as domestic helps and drivers into housing colonies. While the government gave the go-ahead for their return to their jobs, several RWAs were against it as the danger of the virus had not fully receded from the city. A member of the decision-making committee of an RWA told Frontline: “It is a big dilemma. The worker can be a carrier or, conversely, one of us residents who go out into the city could be a carrier who unwittingly passes it on to the maid. She goes back to her slum and becomes a spreader there. These are not easy decisions.”

The situation remains worrying as there is a steady spike in the number of cases of mild or asymptomatic infections. Contact tracing has failed to reveal the sources of all infections. This indicates the presence of silent carriers moving around undetected in communities. Delhi had conducted 2,300 tests per million population of the city, which is pretty high compared with the numbers in other States. Gujarat, for instance, which had 5,804 cases of coronavirus, had tested only 1,246 per million population, while Kerala, which did not report any new cases in the week preceding May 4, had tested only 500 people per million population. The Delhi government contacted 1,100 people who had recovered from COVID-19 and asked them to donate their plasma, which is being used as an experimental treatment procedure in Delhi hospitals.

Newer hotspots seem to be emerging in the city; on April 29 200 health workers tested positive for the virus. Very few of them were from the facilities dedicated for the treatment of coronavirus infections, said State Health Minister Satyendar Jain. The paramilitary forces became super spreaders after 137 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were found to be positive. The entire battalion of 480 CRPF personnel based in Mayur Vihar had to be quarantined after one of them died of COVID-19 infection. Apart from that, personnel from the Central Industrial Security Force (9), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (21) and the Border Security Force (31) deployed in the Jama Masjid area were found to be positive for the virus.

An artist based out of Patna said: “But no media house hounded them or blamed them for spreading the virus deliberately as they had done with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation and rightly so. But here in Bihar, ordinary Muslims continue to be hounded and harassed by local residents, who blame them for ‘corona jehad’. The media’s hate propaganda has gone deep within an already Islamophobic society, and we will see its ill effects for a long time to come.”

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