COVID-19 States Update: Delhi

The State government and the Centre continue to bicker with each other as the citizens of Delhi grapple with the pandemic

Print edition : June 04, 2021

The Delhi government ramped up the State’s hospital bed capacity by setting up 500 beds at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. Here, workers loading oxygen into newly installed tanks to be used for COVID-19 patients at the maidan, on May 12. Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP

Outside a Covaxin vaccination centre in New Delhi on May 13. Photo: Money SHARMA/AFP

Although there appears to be a slight dip in the number of COVID-19 cases and in the positivity rate, neither the Centre nor the AAP government nor the Lieutenant Governor seems able to get a handle on the crisis, with the people of the State having to largely fend for themselves.

The national capital continued to reel under a massive onslaught of the COVID-19 infection through May. As the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government announced a fourth extension of the lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, Delhi experienced all kinds of shortages: from oxygen and critical medicines to space in crematoriums and burial grounds. Before the middle of May, it faced an acute shortage of vaccines as well. A total of 125 vaccination centres that were administering Covaxin to those in the 18-44 age group were forced to shut down on May 12 because of unavailability of stocks. According to AAP MLA Atishi, there were only three-days’ worth of stocks of Covishield for this age group. There is no clarity on what will happen to those in the 18-44 age group who have taken their first dose and are due for their second. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed to the Centre to fast-track the manufacture of vaccines by sharing the vaccine formulas of Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India with other pharmaceutical companies. It is not clear what he meant by this as the Centre does not have the formulas. He also asked the Centre to formulate a nationwide plan for the inoculation of all citizens.

On May 11, the capital recorded 12,481 new COVID-19 cases and a positivity rate of 17.76 per cent, both the lowest in a month. But volunteers on the ground allege that some deliberate fudging of numbers might be happening to show improvement. The testing rate has gone down considerably in the city as laboratories continue to not respond to calls or keep their phones off the hook.

Defending the low testing rate, Health Minister Satyendra Jain said at a press conference: “We are conducting 80,000 tests per day…. The testing figures are coming down due to the imposition of lockdown. People are not coming out of their homes. Earlier, everyone was out in markets and other public places and they were being tested.” The lockdown was extended up to May 17 with more stringent curbs such as a ban on marriage functions in public and suspension of the Delhi metro services.

During the lockdown, the Delhi government ramped up the hospital bed capacity by setting up 500 beds at Ramlila Maidan and procured 990 portable ventilators for distribution in 15 hospitals. But simply setting up hospital beds was not enough without addressing the glaring lack of medical staff, observed the Delhi High Court.

Delhi was also doing poorly compared with populous States such as Maharashtra that were under similar stress. For instance, Delhi recorded several avoidable deaths, those of people who died because of a lack of oxygen. So far, Mumbai has not reported any death from a lack of oxygen.

Also read: Worrying surge in Punjab

After the notification of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act in April that made the Lieutenant Governor the “government” in Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has to share the responsibility of managing the crisis in Delhi with the AAP. However, neither the BJP nor the AAP nor the Lieutenant Governor has managed to ensure a steady supply of oxygen to the citizens.

On May 5, the Supreme Court reprimanded the bickering parties and told them to focus on the task at hand. A bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud told the Centre to “look to Mumbai and take note” of its successes in managing the supply of oxygen. “The Bombay Municipal Corporation has done some remarkable work and not disrespecting Delhi but we can maybe see what was done by BMC. I understand that Maharashtra also produces oxygen, which Delhi can’t do. If you draw from experience and figure out how the holding corporations can be done in Delhi.... Then we will have a module for Delhi in place based on the successful model in Bombay, which is a large metropolis,” he said.

Despite the administrators of Delhi getting several raps on the knuckle from the courts and despite assurances from Kejriwal, the blame game between the AAP and the BJP at the Centre and at the municipality level continued without any respite for the citizens. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remained critical and harrowing. Social media continued to be flooded with SOS calls, and strangers were the only beacon of hope for people in urgent need of plasma or oxygen. Several cases of children orphaned because their parents had succumbed to the virus came to the fore as also the mental trauma of patients and their relatives who had to run from pillar to post despite themselves being sick. “I went to three hospitals and could not get a bed. Everywhere people were crying and wailing. Finally, my office (an MNC) got me an isolation room in a private hotel and paid the expenses. I stayed locked in a room there for 11 days. While I was taken care of medically, day and night I heard the sounds from the other rooms of people screaming and weeping. Now I am back home with 50 per cent of my lungs damaged, but I am unable to sleep at night. I keep hearing the screams and do not know how to cope,” said 37-year-old Ratnakar*, who is now recovering from the infection.

As Delhi gasped for air, a narrative was created that the lack of timely oxygen supply was entirely the fault of black marketeers and hoarders. While evidence of black marketing had surfaced, citizens felt that the government could not simply wash its hands of all responsibility for the oxygen supply crisis by blaming hoarders. “While it is true that prices of critical medicines had inflated immensely in the black market, desperate people are also turning to these black marketeers for help as none is coming from the government, and hospitals are simply overwhelmed…. Do by all means stop the hoarders but also simultaneously provide what is the need of the hour,” said Gupta*, a president of a residents’ welfare association in south Delhi.

Also read: Mumbai shows the way in second wave

There was a crackdown on hoarders, and in one raid, 500 oxygen concentrators were recovered from well-known restaurants and a farmhouse owned by a local businessman, Navneet Kalra. But under the garb of cracking down on hoarders, the Delhi Police and civil volunteers of the AAP severely curtailed the movement of citizens trying to assist their friends and relatives. On at least three occasions that Frontline is privy to, the police harassed people who were taking oxygen cylinders to critically ill patients quarantined at home or in a hospital without oxygen supplies.

Frontline spoke to a professor who works at a Delhi government institute. He said: “On television [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and Kejriwal blame each other, but on the ground their people are working hand in glove. The civil volunteers of the AAP who were wearing the Delhi Police uniform harassed me for 15 minutes before allowing me to go. When I said I was a professor and why would I hoard cylinders, they retorted that it was precisely people like me who are hoarders. I was shocked.”

(*Names have been changed to protect identities.)