Questionable decisions

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Queuing up for ration in New Delhi on June 3. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has the delicate task of opening up the economy and dealing with the rising number of cases.

Faced with a crumbling economy, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal opened up Delhi under Lockdown 5 in accordance with the Central government’s guidelines despite an alarming rise in the number of COVID cases across the capital—nearly 20,000 by June 1 and a death toll of 473.

Delhi has the second largest population of inter-State migrants after Maharashtra, according to Census 2011 data on migration. The Delhi government converted government schools and stadiums into quarantine centres for migrants. But reports say that they are in pitiable conditions and that local leaders run them like prisons.

Across class barriers, migrants in the city have had a tough time during the lockdown. Puttan in Ghazipur’s Sapera Basti hails from Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) and is used to making grinding stones, which fetched him Rs.200-300 a day. He was the only earning member of his family, which has survived thus far on rations received from social service organisations and government bodies.

It was tougher for Bucha and her four children from Kalyanpuri’s resettlement colony, Jalebi Chowk. Abandoned by her husband since the lockdown, she got some assistance from her neighbours and insufficient ration from a government store. No other assistance from the authorities came her way.

Two international wrestlers, aged 13 and 14 years, from the denotified Koli tribal community were struggling to eat two full meals a day when a team of social service workers reached out to them.

Reema’s husband was diagnosed with polio four years ago and is unable to work. She worked as a domestic help, but since the lockdown, despite the Prime Minister’s plea to not hold back wages, her employer did not pay her the salary. Her family had migrated from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh years ago, said Sanjeev Kumar, secretary of the Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch and convener of the National People’s Alliance Movement. She and her family survived on food the government distributed in schools and were clueless on how to manage the situation post-May 31 when that too would end.

While the walking migrants’ plight was there for all to see, the misery of immigrants like these in Delhi was seldom acknowledged. The opening up of the economy, in part, would help them get their lives back on track and earn their daily wages.

Many of them would agree with the Chief Minister’s observation that a permanent lockdown is no solution and that “we have to move on with all the precautions”.

At the same time, an environmentalist in a posh South Delhi locality alleged that there was lack of logic in the policies of the government and the local body in leading the fight against COVID. The Residents’ Welfare Association of the colony in which he lives was not opening the park inside the colony but allowing full-fledged construction activity in apartments. According to him, the decisions to impose the lockdown or lift it were not taken on the basis of any scientific evidence.

“The enforcement of a strict lockdown without allowing people a chance to prepare for their safety was excessive and unscientific. The lifting of the lockdown at a time when the economy has crashed and people have suffered in a major way is arbitrary and unscientific. The government lacks proper scientific guidance to combat the novel coronavirus and has therefore abandoned the citizens to their own devices,” he said. He also voiced a popular sentiment among Delhiites that the government was fudging numbers to justify the opening up of the markets.

Opening up shops

Since June 1, the Delhi government has implemented all the relaxations permitted by the Centre except in the 122 containment zones where the lockdown was extended till June 30. In a departure from the previous phases of the lockdown, it decided to open shops in markets regardless of the odd-even formula. There would be no restrictions on the functioning of shops or industries in Delhi. The Chief Minister even announced the opening up of barber shops and salons; restrictions apply only to

In the initial days of the lockdown, a barber shop in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences Institute (AIIMS) hostel had surreptitiously defied the guidelines and continued its business as usual. The barber was soon found to be COVID positive, said a nurse on condition of anonymity.

“It is a profession that requires direct touch and therefore should not be allowed to open. Especially because primary contacts are not being tested even inside AIIMS. If they are not being tested in the premier hospital of the capital, do you think testing is being done elsewhere?” she asked.

However, citizens, including prominent news anchors, heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the Chief Minister on Twitter for opening up salons, triggering a spate of funny memes. People were generally tired of the lockdown and simply wanted to resume normal lives, irrespective of the cost. Echoing this sentiment, Kejriwal said, “The time has come to reopen Delhi. We will have to be ready to live with coronavirus.”

But the social activist Alok Shukla termed it a folly and said, “When India had only 500 cases, the government gave a notice of four hours and shut down all movement, subjecting people to unimaginable suffering. Now when the number of cases has crossed a million, they are allowing all movement and activity. Wouldn’t it have made sense to have given a notice of 15 days and allowed people to reach their safe destinations prior to announcing a lockdown?”

Kejriwal announced that there would be no restrictions on the number of persons travelling in any type of vehicles like cars or autorickshaws. Delhi borders would remain sealed for one week with the exemption of essential services. A decision would be taken in a week’s time to open borders after getting suggestions from citizens. In line with the Central guidelines, night curfew would be enforced from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. While Gurugram opened its borders with Delhi, Noida decided not to do so as 42 per cent of the cases in Noida had been traced to Delhi.

“We agree that the city has seen a huge spike in the number of coronavirus cases. But we should not panic. The situation in Delhi would be worrying for me in two scenarios—if the number of deaths increase and if there’s a shortage of hospital beds. We are making plenty of arrangements that are much more than the requirements,” Kejriwal said, adding that the capital was four steps ahead of coronavirus.

He told the press that of the total number of cases, only 2,100 were in hospital. The rest were either discharged or had mild or no symptoms and were recovering at home. The government was planning to prepare 9,500 beds for patients, he said. The Delhi government asked private hospitals and nursing homes with 50 beds or more to reserve 20 per cent of their total capacity for COVID-19 patients.

Worrying situation

Despite the Chief Minister’s assurances, the situation seemed worrying. The Delhi High Court was scheduled to hear a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on June 3 in connection with the death of an elderly COVID positive woman due to the unavailability of a ventilator. She was admitted to a private hospital last month. Her son Dharmendra Bhardwaj desperately tried to procure the ventilator after the hospital asked him to arrange it on his own or take her elsewhere. He visited several hospitals and even approached the Delhi government’s coronavirus helpline, but to no avail. A video he posted on social media went viral, but it could not save his mother. Later he too tested positive and was kept in isolation. The Delhi government issued a show-cause notice to the hospital asking why its licence should not be cancelled as its conduct had been wrong and could not be tolerated.

The High Court took suo motu cognisance of alleged negligence by the hospital administration and filed the PIL stating that it raised serious issues of public concern. A two-judge bench consisting of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rajnish Bhatnagar pulled up both the Central and State governments and said that Delhi helpline numbers should provide guidance on availability of hospital beds in the city, particularly in the proximity of any caller’s location.

The Delhi government launched a mobile app to help patients in Delhi track the number of beds in the city. Kejriwal has invited suggestions from Delhiites on whether the capital should open its hospitals for treatment of people from across the country or whether they should be reserved for Delhi residents only.

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