COVID-19 Update

Maharashtra: Light at the end of the tunnel

Print edition : July 31, 2020

Health workers screen people for COVID-19 symptoms at a slum in Mumbai on July 8. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

The COVID situation continues to take Mumbai through ups and downs, but there seems to be a slight improvement.

Mumbai continues to experience ups and downs in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is a distinct feeling that the “ups”are gaining ground.

The statistics of July 7 showed an encouraging drop in the number of cases of infection, with Mumbai recording 806, the lowest single-day figure in the past two months. Even Dharavi, which until recently was a hotspot, recorded only one new case on that day. The city’s doubling rate, which was about 14 days at the start of June, is now 38 days. In Dharavi, it is 102 days.

After the initial easing of restrictions on June 1, the State government has been slowly adding to the list of things that will lead the city back to normal life. Local trains have started running, albeit with fewer services. Only those engaged in essential services and those who have to travel to work are permitted to ride the trains. Self-employed people such as electricians, plumbers and others who provide services have also been allowed to start working as long as they carry identity cards and licences given by their associations. Taxis and rickshaws plying on the roads are also bringing back a sense of normalcy.

The government is going to implement staggered working hours for its staff in order to space out the load on public transport. While the ban on gyms, malls and dining-in restaurants still holds good, the easing up for salons, barber shops, cobblers, stand-alone shops selling non-essential goods has brought relief to small and medium businesses.

Hotels, lodges and guest houses started operating on July 8 with 33 per cent occupancy. It is doubtful how many guests will check in in a situation where there are still no international flights and no tourists or people visiting on business. Yet, the very act of allowing hotels to reopen is an indicator that things are looking up. The State government has issued guidelines with standard operating procedures for hygiene and restrictions in the functioning of gyms, pools and other common areas within hotels.

Opening up of testing

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has also taken a step forward with its decision to open up testing for coronavirus. Earlier, only patients with symptoms could be tested, and that, too, with a doctor’s prescription. Those who had no symptoms or no high-risk contact but still wanted to reassure themselves that they were free of the virus could not get tested. Now they can do so at 17 designated private labs in the city at a cost of Rs.2,500 without a doctor’s prescription. If the test report is positive, a hospital bed is allocated through ward-level “war rooms” of the BMC. A BMC press release said 3,63,120 tests had been conducted in the city until the first week of July.

The move is part of the BMC’s Mission Universal Testing, which aims to get every Mumbaikar tested. It is in keeping with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guideline that States should do away with the need for a doctor’s prescription for testing. The move may result in a spike in recorded cases as more people come forward to get themselves tested.

There are also signs that the COVID graph in Mumbai may be plateauing, though the situation might change with increased testing. As of July 5, there were 23,732 active cases in the city against 27,659 active cases as of June 25.

Such encouraging developments notwithstanding, the crisis persists. The number of positive cases is rising in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region comprising eight major civic bodies of Navi Mumbai, Mira-Bhayander, Thane, Bhiwandi-Nizampur, Ulhasnagar, Kalyan Dombivli, and Panvel. Government data show that between June 1 and June 23 the number of positive cases in Mumbai increased by around 70 per cent. During that period, the MMR saw a 235 per cent surge. Cases in Navi Mumbai leapt from 2,673 to 5,923; in Thane they rose from 3,721 to 7477; Ulhasnagar saw a rise from 331 to 1,084 cases. The worst hit was Mira Road and Bhayander, where the number of cases jumped from 699 to 2,510. This sudden increase is being unofficially attributed to the relaxation of the lockdown, which saw local trains running and offices reopening.

Economic hardships

There are job losses at all levels. The fact that street vendors are not able to ply their trade yet and the tight rein on local train services are aspects that will have to be tackled in the near future for the city to become an economic powerhouse again. With over 10 lakh migrant workers having left for their home States, there is a severe shortage of labour. Mumbai perhaps appreciates for the first time the symbiotic relationship that existed between the services provided by migrant workers and the job opportunities the city provided. Many of them wish to return but are finding it difficult to do so; there are also fears about the COVID-19 situation in Mumbai. The return of migrant labour is crucial to the city’s functioning.

The Maha Vikas Aghadi government has tried to plug this gap by launching the Maha Jobs portal on which potential employers can post information about job openings. The only negative thing about it is the insistence on a domicile certificate, a throwback to the days when the Shiv Sena used to rant about preferences for the Marathi manoos. However, it is unlikely that returning migrant workers will face problems on this count.

For exhausted Mumbaikars, the lifting of even the smallest restriction is welcome. The city, which put up with more than three months of stringent curbs, is now gradually emerging out of a dark zone. Mumbaikars also bore the brunt of subtle and not-so subtle jibes from the Centre. Of course, these were part of an ugly political game with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) using the pandemic to belittle its former ally, the Shiv Sena. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray reacted with a composure that, quite frankly, one hardly expected from a Sena leader. It is only now that he finally took a dig at the Centre through his party newspaper, Saamna. In the July 7 edition, the Saamna editorial recalled that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed confidence that the battle against COVID-19 would be won in 21 days. It reminded its readers that it was now over 100 days but the crisis remained unresolved.