Tamil Nadu

Domino effect

Print edition : July 17, 2020

At the sample testing centre in Kilpauk Medical College Hospital in Chennai on June 23. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

With a large number of people leaving for their home towns from Chennai, which accounts for the largest percentage of COVID in Tamil Nadu, the infection seems to have spread far and wide.

An exodus of people from Chennai and its neighbouring districts to their home towns from early June seems to have carried COVID-19 infection across the State to different parts of Tamil Nadu. Rumours of yet another lockdown, lack of jobs, delay in reopening of schools and the need to pay rents forced many people to leave the city. Those who left were not tested for COVID-19 either in Chennai or in the districts they went to. Besides, the district administrations were unequal to the task of handling the large volumes of people coming into the districts. In effect, the reasons that led to the Koyambedu cluster and resulted in the COVID-19 numbers spreading from the State’s largest vegetable and fruit market in Chennai played out again. This time, the spread happened across the State.

It appears that over a lakh people left the Chennai metropolitan area soon after the announcement on June 15 of a 12-day lockdown from June 19. As June ended, five districts witnessed sudden spikes in COVID cases, while in other districts the case numbers were growing exponentially.

That the exodus from Chennai contributed to this increase can be borne out by the following facts: The COVID positive percentage in Chennai in the first week of May was around 5 per cent (May 1, for instance, saw 176 positives from 3,309 samples). However, in the days before the Chennai lockdown, every fourth sample turned out to be positive (for instance, on June 18, as many as 5,539 samples were tested, of which 1,373 were positive, or 24.79 per cent), according to official statistics. Hence, it was possible that many who had been afflicted, left Chennai.

This is also supported by the numbers from the districts. For instance, in Madurai district, until May 31, the total number of cases was 269. In the next three weeks (June 21), the district added 436 cases, taking the total number to 705. In the next three days (June 24), the figure jumped to 1,073, and by June 27, those who tested positive for the infection numbered 1,703.

Although Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami had announced that there was no plan for a lockdown in Chennai or any other district in mid June, the State did a U-turn and declared the 12-day lockdown in Chennai. A few days later, a couple of more districts too were put on a seven-day lockdown. As part of this harsh, haphazard and unplanned lockdown, the government severely restricted the movement of the people, and even milk shops were shut on Sundays.

As on June 26, the total number of infections in Chennai was 49,690, up from the cumulative 46,734 the day before. It crossed the 50,000 mark on June 27 after an additional 1,939 cases were added to the city’s tally that day. June 27 also marked yet another grim milestone for Tamil Nadu: it crossed the 1,000 mark in deaths. Sixty-eight deaths were recorded that day, taking the total number of deaths to 1,025.

Chengalpattu, abutting Chennai, had the second highest number of cases (4,911), while Tiruvallur, another district next to Chennai, was third in the list (3,420).

The fear factor

Such was the fear of people coming from Chennai to villages in almost all districts that some village administrations hired town criers to inform residents that they should report anyone who had come from Chennai to the authorities. Videos of two such “proclamations”—one in Bargur in Krishnagiri district and another in Kanyakumari district—went viral on social media.

Two other events added to the sense of fear: the death from COVID of K. Anbazhagan, MLA and a district secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), in Chennai and the death of the owner of the famous brand of halwa, Iruttukkadai Halwa, by suicide in Tirunelveli after he came to know that he had contracted COVID. The suicide also underlined the lack of adequate psychiatric care for individuals affected by COVID. These were two persons who had access to the best of medical care, but even that did not help.

It also did not help that the Chief Minister, who said in April that the “coronavirus will go away” over the next few days, changed his perception about the virus and said in a meeting that only God could tell when the virus would go away. In another public statement, he tried to, incredulously, pin the blame on the spread of the virus on the main opposition party, the DMK. The Chief Minister said it was the DMK that had spread the virus during its outreach programme, Ondrinaivom Vaa.

Officials in the State said they were not worried about the trajectory of infections as long as the deaths could be kept down. As of June 26, the total number of cases in the State was 74,622, and the number of deaths 957. The State government pointed to the low death rate (1.28 per cent) and the high recovery rate (55.42 per cent, 41,357 patients as on June 26). But the worrying fact that was giving the authorities sleepless nights was that the number of deaths had increased since early June; about a third of all deaths was from June 19 to 27 (400).

The public health expert who recommended Lockdown 6 for Chennai, P. Kughanandam, told Frontline that the lockdown had helped identify the gap in field-level responses, close the gaps and step up the health infrastructure as was needed in the middle of a pandemic. He said that “death has decreased in the past two weeks” and hoped that the government’s responses would yield the desired results.

But many critics pointed out that the entire COVID response was led by three groups—ruling party politicians, media and bureaucrats. Strong public health input was missing, these critics pointed out, adding that ever since the retirement of Dr. K. Kolandaswamy as Director of Public Health in April, the department appeared to be happy to stay away from the limelight.

Officials claimed that the next set of responses would yield results. Plans are afoot to make sure that one government staffer reaches every home to check if any member of the household has a problem. On the basis of the understanding that infection control in Chennai is central to controlling the spread to other places in the State, the government, apart from not allowing free movement of people beyond the Chennai Police area, has also curtailed inter-district movement. Many districts were on a seven-day lockdown until June 30. It is not clear how such haphazard lockdowns could help control the spread of the virus.

While the State government looks to the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Delhi and the Indian Council of Medical Research for support and guidance, it is also not wasting time in castigating people for not following the mandated rules during COVID times. Spokespersons for the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have repeatedly blamed people for violating lockdown norms. People, in turn, have asked questions of the government over its handling of the crisis. Even as this bizarre blame game continues, one thing is clear: the flattening of the curve is a long way away.

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