Peaking chaos

Print edition : July 03, 2020

An ICMR team conducting surveillance at Balapur in Hyderabad on May 31. Photo: PTI

The uncontrolled spread of the pandemic in Telangana has knocked the stuffing out of Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao’s image as a tough man of action.

THE tribulations of the Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR) government in Telangana continue unabated as it attempts vainly to tackle the coronavirus disease in the State. The statistics are chilling: over 5,406 positive cases, 191 deaths and a poor testing record. This despite the fact that the government had announced a lockdown, on “sarvajana hitam (public interest)”, on March 22, two days before the nationwide lockdown was announced.

The pandemic has knocked the stuffing out of the Chief Minister’s image of a tough man of action. The opposition is baying for his blood; the doctors are bemoaning the physical and emotional burnout due to the pressure-filled long working hours and the lack of PPEs and other essential equipment; and the Telangana High Court and the Central government are criticising the State for inadequate testing. On June 14, KCR announced that 50,000 tests would be conducted in 30 Assembly constituencies in Hyderabad (including the bustling Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation area, which has the highest number of positive cases in the State), Rangareddy, Vikarabad, Medchel, and Sangareddy districts over the following 10 days. After steadfastly refusing for nearly three months, he accepted the widespread demand to allow private hospitals and laboratories approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to conduct COVID-19 tests and provide treatment to those who tested positive.

A. Shanti Kumari, Special Chief Secretary to the Government in the Health, Medical and Family Welfare Department, told this correspondent that “it would be an area-specific, community-based, targeted approach”. The number (50,000 tests), contrary to what some many may think, was “quite big”, she added.

The numbers tell a gory tale. Between May 25 and June 16, COVID-19 positive cases more than doubled from 1,920 to 5,406. The number of deaths in the same period, even more chillingly, skyrocketed from 56 to 191. The State’s mortality rate (the number of deaths divided by the number of officially confirmed cases) at 3.53 per cent (as of June 16) compares poorly with the other south Indian States—Andhra Pradesh (1.28 per cent), Karnataka (1.24 per cent), Tamil Nadu 1.09 per cent ) and Kerala (0.84 per cent). Telangana’s 3.53 per cent is lower than Maharashtra’s 4.88 per cent. Only Delhi, with 4.11 per cent, and Gujarat, with 6.22 per cent, have worse mortality rates. Cases of infection have also been rising rapidly. Among the infected are 153 doctors and other frontline health care personnel, besides politicians, journalists and bureaucrats. Recently, Finance Minister T. Harish Rao, legislator of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) representing the united Warangal district, tested positive for COVID-19 and went into self-quarantine. Earlier his personal assistant was found infected by the virus. An officer on special duty assisting Health Minister Eatala Rajender and 23 journalists working for various media houses also have tested positive. The Collectors of Siddipet and Yadadri Bhuvanagiri districts, A.P. Venkatrami Reddy and Anitha Ramachandran respectively, have gone into self-quarantine after people they met tested positive for the virus. On June 12, Greater Hyderabad Mayor Bonthu Rammohan took a COVID-19 test after his driver tested positive.

The biggest facility dedicated to COVID-19 in the State, the Gandhi Medical College and Hospital at Secunderabad, Hyderabad’s twin city, has become a hot spot of cases. The chaos there recently resulted in one of the resident medical officers being suddenly transferred.

KCR’s statement on June 14 promising “home quarantine for those who test positive but have no serious symptoms”, according to the opposition, has hardly enthused the population. Said Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee (TPCC) president N. Uttam Kumar Reddy: “The Chief Minister is adopting an irrational, illogical and unscientific approach to combating the coronavirus. For nearly three months, despite calls from the opposition and strictures from the High Court, he refused to allow the private sector to be engaged in testing. Only one government hospital was exclusively designated for COVID-19 patients. Patients are being sent home without being cured. He has refused to call an all-party meeting or meet a Congress party delegation. He doesn’t allow anybody else to function and he doesn’t know how to function.” Minister Rajender dismisses this allegation as rubbish. He told Frontline that the situation in Telangana was well under control and that the number of cases was far from overwhelming. He explained: “Not many cases are coming. And it is only in the crowded ‘Old City’ areas of Hyderabad that there are many cases coming up. We are containing this by increased testing and containment measures.”

But there is widespread fear that a huge number of cases have gone undetected given the fact that Telangana has one of the worst testing records in the country. According to Rajender, the government had until June 16 conducted 44,431 tests. This rate pales in comparison with that of its neighbours Karnataka (443,969), Tamil Nadu (748,244) and Andhra Pradesh (583,286 tests). Telangana’s test positivity rate—the percentage of tests that yield positive results—stands at 12.16 per cent (as of June 16), which is higher than the national average of around 5.99 per cent. The only States with comparable or higher test positivity rates are Maharashtra (15.16 per cent), Delhi (14.67 per cent) and Gujarat (8.31 per cent). A higher number indicates not only wider spread of the infection but also the fact that only the symptomatic are being tested, leaving out large sections of the population.

In May, the High Court, criticising the KCR government for the poor testing rate, said it should not hide behind the “fig leaf of financial constraints”. It was highly critical of the government’s decision, despite its mandate, to do away with tests on dead bodies before they were released from government hospitals. The government has appealed the High Court’s ruling in the Supreme Court. According to Rajender, the High Court’s order is impossible to implement since “over 1,000 people die every day for various reasons”. Making matters worse is the State government’s decision to do away with the mandated quarantine for railway passengers arriving in Telangana. Explained Shanti Kumari: “Telangana has followed the ICMR protocol in every respect. The ICMR has clearly stipulated that only symptomatic and household contacts of a positive case need be tested. Again, the ICMR suggests that testing ought to be moderate and judicious. In Telangana, testing is done on reasonable suspicion. Testing involves precious government resources, so it cannot be undertaken on anyone and everyone. Some States are testing more aggressively and showing a 1 per cent test positivity rate. How long will a person who has tested negative today remain negative?”

On the government’s refusal not to allow the private sector a role in testing, Rajender explained that if the testing facility was freely available and everyone “just walked in and sought a test, the number of COVID-19 cases would disproportionately go up, frightening the public”. Said the Minister: “We have now put into place a regulatory framework based on ICMR guidelines. For example, only a person who has been prescribed a test by a doctor will be tested. And what can the private sector do once a person tests positive? It is us, the government, who will be called to trace the patient’s contacts, contain the area concerned and ensure that the virus does not spread.” Officials cited past experience of the private sector not divulging information on positive cases and also aggressively marketing their services.

The Telangana government has not endeared itself to the migrant workers, whose number some people put at 20 lakhs. According to a survey conducted by the Hyderabad campus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in collaboration with the Rachakonda Police Commissionerate, 76 per cent of them did not receive the monthly aid of 12 kg rice and Rs.500 that State government had announced with fanfare. Based on a sample size of 10,672 workers spread across eight police station limits, the survey showed that the migrants were given a raw deal. The State did not even arrange enough trains for their journey back home.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor