In a mess

Print edition : July 03, 2020

Outside Punjabi Bagh cremation ground, New Delhi’s first COVID-19-only burning ghat, on June 14. Photo: Kamal Narang

A sudden surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in June, the low levels of testing and the controversy over the non-availability of beds expose the ineptness of the Delhi government’s handling of the pandemic.

Delhi’s COVID-19 outbreak went from bad to worse in June, setting off alarm bells in the capital’s medical and political circles. Failure on several fronts, especially with regard to the abysmally low levels of testing, has led to the situation getting out of control. By Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s own admission, cases are expected to spike to 5.5 lakh by end July, requiring 80,000 beds. By mid June, more than half the available beds and ventilators in Delhi’s hospitals were already occupied.

The absence of any mechanism to trace and isolate infected persons and their primary contacts resulted in a spurt in cases that soon became unmanageable. While migrants in Delhi who left for their hometowns were said to have been responsible for a rise in cases in several States, the Delhi government itself showed no inclination to monitor or quarantine people entering the capital. By mid June, it became impossible to ignore the rising number of infections and deaths, as families of patients were seen struggling between hospitals for beds and treatment. Bodies piled up in mortuaries, while crematoriums and burial grounds were either not available or non-functional.

News reports pointed to a mismatch in COVID-19 fatality rates put out by the Delhi government and the hospitals, causing Kejriwal much embarrassment. However, instead of correcting their data, the Delhi government took the shocking step of reducing the levels of testing. Bodies brought to hospitals were no longer to be tested for COVID-19 even if the persons had been found to be symptomatic. This decision not only violated World Health Organisation (WHO) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines but also exposed those handling the dead to the risk of contracting the virus. Thereafter, laboratories were told not to test asymptomatic persons regardless of their exposure to the risk of the virus. These orders led to a drastic fall in the number of tests conducted in June.

Senior Congress leader Manish Tewari said he had to run from pillar to post to get his wife tested on the written advice of her doctors. “Despite growing up on a hospital campus and knowing every medical professional of consequence, I had to move heaven and earth just to get my wife tested. Fortunately, she tested negative,” Tewari tweeted, adding: “Delhi’s health systems are broken.”

On June 9, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia claimed that there was no community spread because Central government officials had said so in a meeting with the State Disaster Management Authority. Community transmission is declared when the source of the infection in an infected person cannot be determined. The same day, Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain said that in 50 per cent of cases the source of infection was unknown. He added that only the Centre could declare whether there was community transmission or not as it was a “technical term”.

Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, Anil Baijal, overturned Kejriwal’s decision to not provide health care in government-run hospitals to patients from outside Delhi and did so on the grounds that the decision went against the constitutional guarantee of right to life and healthcare.

The National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Delhi government and the Union Health Ministry on the complaint of Congress leader Ajay Maken, who pointed out that around 70 per cent of dedicated beds in Delhi were lying vacant even as patients were struggling to avail themselves of beds. He stated in the complaint that Delhi has a robust hospital infrastructure of 57,194 beds, along with a significant presence of Central government hospitals, but only 12 per cent of Delhi government’s, 8 per cent of the Central government’s and 7 per cent of private hospital beds were occupied and being used to treat COVID-19 patients.

Judiciary intervenes

The Delhi High Court came down heavily on the Delhi government’s handling of the pandemic. “It appears that Delhi is fast heading towards becoming the coronavirus capital of the country, an epithet the city can well do without. We are of the opinion that it is the need of the hour that all the private hospitals in Delhi who are equipped with a lab to undertake COVID-19 test be permitted to do the testing without any further loss of time. This is all the more imperative as the Delhi government has directed all private hospitals in Delhi to reserve 20 per cent beds for admitting COVID-19 patients,” the court said on June 6.

On June 12, the Supreme Court pulled up the Delhi government for its low testing rates and mishandling of COVID-19 patients and bodies of those who had died. It slammed the government for a “horrendous” situation where COVID patients were being treated “worse than animals”, and asked Kejriwal to explain why testing had dropped from 7,000 to 5,000 when Chennai and Mumbai had increased their testing from 16,000 to 17,000.

On June 14, Home Minister Amit Shah met Kejriwal and promised initiatives to prop up Delhi’s fight against the coronavirus, including 500 railway coaches with 8,000 beds, a supply of oxygen cylinders, ventilators and pulse oximeters. A committee would be formed to provide 60 per cent of the beds reserved for coronavirus patients in private hospitals at a low rate and testing would be doubled immediately, Amit Shah said. After six days, the tests would be increased by three times, he added. To improve contact mapping in containment zones, a comprehensive health survey of every person would be done from door to door. Currently there are 242 containment zones in Delhi.

“Extremely productive meeting between Delhi govt and Central govt. Many key decisions taken. We will fight against corona together,” tweeted Kejriwal.

With the number of cases touching 41,182 and the number of deaths 1,328 by June 15, Kejriwal quelled rumours and clarified that there would be no extension of the lockdown, essentially placing the burden of safety on individuals.

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