In spite of a code red lockdown, Gujarat has not been able to arrest the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Ahmedabad, in particular, has close to 70 per cent of the cases. The general feeling is that the State government’s cavalier attitude in the early days, as seen in the lack of contact tracing, the slow implementation of regulations, the violation of lockdown rules and poor governance in general, led to the situation getting out of hand.
As on May 18, according to the State government’s COVID-19 tracker, there were 659 deaths and 11,379 cases. Nationwide, the State is second, after Maharashtra, in the number of positive cases and deaths. The death rate, at 5.68 per cent, is substantially higher than the national average of 3.02 per cent. Until May 18, Gujarat had tested 1,43,599 cases.
According to the Health Department, May saw a surge, with 350 cases being reported on an average every day compared with 143 cases a day in April. On May 16, as many as 700 vegetable vendors tested positive, leading to the highest single-day spike of 1,057 cases. The rate of doubling has increased to 11.9 days (national average is 13.9 days) from approximately six days in April.
High spread is recorded in wards that are thickly populated and have more than half of the families living in one-room tenements. Darshini Mahadevia, a professor at Ahmedabad University’s School of Arts and Sciences, said if a large number of people were confined to such small areas, there was bound to be transmission. East Ahmedabad, which includes localities such as Narol, Naroda and Rakhiyal that house the poor, daily wagers and the minorities, reports a high number of cases every day.
After Ahmedabad, Surat city has reported 1,094 positive cases and 54 deaths as of May 18. Vadodara comes third with 660 cases and 32 deaths.
Mahadevia believes that poor urban governance and lack of direction from the leadership are the fundamental reasons why the State has not been able to control the crisis. The State wants every vendor to undergo a health check-up every week. With lakhs of vendors in the city and with the poor infrastructure that seems to be an impossible task.
The Central government has called the Ahmedabad situation “especially serious”. On orders from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Dr Randeep Guleria, Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, visited the city in early May. While various reasons have been given for Ahmedabad’s high numbers, Dr Guleria says he also believes the stigma attached to COVID-19 is a major cause for deaths and increasing number of positive cases. He told the media that some patients were scared of visiting hospitals or getting tested. “Several times, lives of patients with mild symptoms, getting low oxygen supply in blood, can be saved if they get proper oxygen supply following timely treatment. Low oxygen affects their heart and lungs, and this increases their chances of death. If they have symptoms which can be that of coronavirus, they should get tested, and be isolated, to save their life and also save their near and dear ones from getting affected,” he said.
Rajendra Doshi, director, SAATH, a non-governmental organisation working with the urban poor in Ahmedabad, said the poor would remain the most affected. “The lockdown may have an effect on flattening the curve, but this is not the case in east Ahmedabad. Here the curve is only increasing and it is those people who need help the most. Tthe current top-down coercive approach will not work over there. We have suggested to the government to create an environment where the community helps each other—convert small schools into quarantine centres, provide food locally, teach basic hygiene, discourage large gatherings, essentially start awareness campaigns,” said Rajendra Doshi.
In a bid to contain the spread, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani imposed an advanced lockdown in the State from May 7 to May 14, which included curfew and minimal movement. Even essential services such as medical shops had to adhere to short timings. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) was asked to curtail the movement of delivery boys, vegetable vendors and other essential services workers, including public transport workers.
Rupani’s latest announcement with regard to Ahmedabad says the government will carry out health check-ups and surveillance in 10 wards of the containment zones in the city within the next 15 days. A statement from the Chief Minister’s office says that a team of officers “would regularly visit the containment zones so that people with common ailments also get treatment at home and rapid testing of COVID-19 suspects is done. Accordingly, a mobile medical van with a team of allopathic doctors, an AYUSH [Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy] doctor, lab technicians, pharmacists and paramedical staff will be deployed at four points for two hours for the next 15 days. 40 mobiles vans have been commissioned for this purpose.”
With approximately 80 per cent of its workforce involved in the informal sector, there are lakhs of migrants stranded across the State. It took close to two weeks for the government to get a grip on the situation and help them get back to their home States. Two incidents of violence were reported, from Surat and Rajkot, where migrants took to the streets in protest after they had no way to get back home even as they did not have access to food and shelter.
Although trains were organised, thousands could not find their way to the Collector’s office in the curfew in order to file an application to return. A group of workers waited two weeks for a train to East Champaran in Bihar. In spite of filing every possible form and appealing to two police stations for help, the “token” that allows them to board a State transport bus to the railway station was hard to come by.
“The system has collapsed. We have tried everything, including calling the police station, but for some reason we cannot get that token,” said Nasim Akhtar, one of the workers. “Every day we dip into our savings to buy food. Soon we will have no money to even buy the ticket. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been denying that migrants are paying for their tickets, but there is ample proof that money is being collected. It costs Rs.740 to board the bus and get on the train,” he said.
Frontline spoke to a government officer who handles migrants’ applications. “We are overworked on the migrant issue. Every day we start at 6 a.m. and end at midnight. There are lakhs of applications. We do not organise the train. We send the applications to their home State and only then a train is sent. Worse still, if the men are in containment zones, it is a risk to send them,” he said. When told about how the workers were starving, he replied: “We are as helpless as them.”
Mahadevia, who has researched on urban Gujarat, says population groups work in specific sectors in the State. For instance, construction workers are from Rajasthan, painters from Uttar Pradesh, and craftsman from Bihar. According to him, the exodus in the past few weeks has been because of uncertainity. The migrants do not trust the government and just want to go back to their villages. “If I have to die I might as well die in my village, is their feeling,” Mahadevia said.
A businessman in Rajkot said “post the lockdown, labour is going to be the biggest issue. What will we manufacture without labour?”
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Rupani’s detractors have accused him of incompetence and mismanagement. Rupani has reportedly been reprimanded by New Delhi for not being able to control the situation. The first two heads to roll in this connection were Ahmedabad Municipal Commissioner Vijay Nehra and Health Secretary Jayanti Ravi. Nehra, a popular officer, has been made Rural Commissioner whereas Ravi has been sidelined. Meanwhile, Rupani has said lockdown 4.0 will be implemented in phases. The first measure will be to relax a few regulations outside containment zones.