Karnataka

Quantum jump

Print edition : June 19, 2020

A COVID-19 virus testing laboratory in Raichur that began operations on May 31. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Karnataka ramps up testing as patients with travel history to other States, mainly Maharashtra, account for the majority of the positive cases in the State.

The opening of the State borders during the fourth phase of the lockdown saw a significant rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in Karnataka. The State recorded its first case on March 9 when an information technology employee returning to Bengaluru from the United States tested positive. The number of positive cases crossed the 1,000 mark on May 15. The next two weeks witnessed an exponential rise in the number of cases with the cumulative figure at 3,408 cases as on June 1. There are 2,026 active cases, 52 deaths and 1,328 have recovered.

Bengaluru with 385 positive cases has the highest number of cases among the districts. Districts with more than 100 cases include Yadgir, Kalaburagi, Mandya, Raichur, Udupi, Bidar, Belagavi, Hassan, Davanagere, Chikkaballapur, Dakshina Kannada and Vijayapura. Chamarajanagar in south Karnataka is the only district that has not seen any COVID-19 case as the authorities there began rigorous checks quite early. There was a sharp increase in coronavirus cases from mid May in the backward Kalyana Karnataka division after migrant labourers returned from Maharashtra. Raichur district, which was classified as a green zone earlier, now has more than 200 cases.

According to calculations by Prof Sitabhra Sinha of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, between May 16 and 24, the R0 (reproduction number—indicates how many persons a positive case can infect), value in Karnataka went up to 1.62, much higher than the national average of 1.23. Before the opening of the borders, Karnataka’s R0 value had been falling.

Data for the last week of May make it clear that the rise in positive cases was due to inter-State travel. Of the 1,039 new cases recorded between May 26 and May 31, 864 had returned from other States and 16 were international flight passengers. On May 29 there were 248 positive cases, of whom 211 had returned from Maharashtra and the rest from other States. On May 31, there were 299 cases, 255 of them with domestic travel history. The quantum of spike in the past three weeks has been so severe that patients with a travel history from Maharashtra account for almost 60 per cent of the total positive cases in the State.

All inter-State and international returnees are being tested on arrival and quarantined. “We have identified 4,290 quarantine centres all over the State where 1,12,165 persons are staying,” said S. Suresh Kumar, Minister for Primary and Secondary Education and Sakala, and spokesperson on all issues relating to COVID-19.

Pankaj Pandey, Commissioner, Health and Family Welfare Services, said: “People who are displaying symptoms are immediately being taken to quarantine centres.” He said people returning from Maharashtra, even if they were asymptomatic, would have to compulsorily undergo a seven-day institutional quarantine, while people coming from other States can be quarantined for 14 days at home.

Karnataka has increased its testing capacity considerably. The State has been testing more than 11,000 samples every day. Cumulatively, 3,04,816 samples have been tested so far. The number of laboratories testing for the virus has also increased significantly, from six at the beginning of April to 60 by the end of May. With 4,124 tests per million population, the rate of testing in Karnataka is higher than the national average. Although the testing capacity has been ramped up significantly, the Sate Health Department has been criticised for its inability to start randomly testing large sections of the population except in containment zones where senior citizens and people with comorbid conditions are being tested. In the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the urban limits of Bengaluru, 32 wards have been identified as containment zones of which Padarayanapura and Shivajinagar have the highest number of cases. A second criticism of the testing process has been the huge backlog of samples waiting to be tested as more and more migrants returned to Karnataka.

Random testing is crucial to discern the extent of “community spread”. According to epidemiologists, if it is not possible to trace how a person contracted the virus, it is assumed that the disease is in the community. While health authorities continue to deny community spread, they were unable to say how more than 199 patients (meaning more than 7 per cent of the cases as on May 29) had contracted the virus. On May 30, the day Bengaluru saw its highest single-day spike in cases, 21 members of an extended family tested positive and it was unclear how they had contracted the disease. On the same day, the councillor of Padarayanapura ward tested positive.

Even as the State battled the crisis, the B.S. Yediyurappa government seemed set on furthering its Hindutva agenda. The BBMP, with the majority of its corporators belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), insisted on naming a new flyover in Yelahanka in north Bengaluru after the Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The inauguration of the flyover was put on hold after former Chief Ministers Siddaramaiah and H.D. Kumaraswamy opposed the decision.

The Yediyurappa government has taken certain decisions during the lockdown that should ideally have been discussed in the Assembly as they have far-reaching implications. One of these was the amendment to the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act. In the last week of May, hamalis (people who load and unload goods) staged protests, demanding the withdrawal of the APMC ordinance. The Cabinet had brought in an amendment to the Act allowing private players, such as food processing companies, to directly purchase agricultural commodities from farmers. K. Mahantesh, president of the organisation representing hamalis, said, “The ordinance takes away work from hamalis and must be withdrawn.”

The government has been criticised for some of its anti-labour rules such as extending the working hours in factories to 10 hours. The Cabinet had approved this rule through a notification. Besides, the government is trying to change the bylaws of the Karnataka State Labour Institute so that a retired Indian Administrative Service officer could be appointed to head the body. As per the rules, the director of the institute should be an academic with a Ph.D and substantial research experience in labour issues.

The Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president D.K. Shivakumar said the State government had failed to provide food and shelter to migrant workers during the lockdown. He said the Central government’s Rs.20 lakh crore package did not benefit anyone. “Neither micro, small and medium enterprises nor small traders have benefited.”

The treatment of migrant labourers came up during the discussion in the BBMP Council. Abdul Wajid, Leader of the Opposition in the BBMP council, demanded to know from the ruling BJP why the BBMP paid Rs.5 crore to the Akshaya Patra Foundation when that organisation had claimed that it “distributed ration kits to migrant labourers free of cost”.

According to estimates, approximately 1.6 lakh construction labourers have left Bengaluru and thousands more are waiting to leave. Questions have been raised as to why the government did not use the Rs.8,000 crore cess it collected from developers and builders for labourers’ welfare.

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