Unseen by television cameras, a mass exodus from the capital is under way. The first wave of migrants who left for their homes on foot were daily wagers who did not have roots in the city. But the current wave of reverse migration includes families that had lived in Delhi for decades. They survived the lockdown and hoped that the situation would improve soon. But on July 6, when the number of positive cases in Delhi crossed 1 lakh, no one was willing to believe the government’s word on the situation being under control any more.
Reports of the collapse of the public health system, with patients being turned away from hospitals, and economic problems, pushed families to take the extreme step of moving back to where they had come from.
Even though the government used terms such as “community transmission” with caution, the public could see that COVID-19 cases were surging through communities.
A white-collar worker with a Gurgaon multinational company took a transfer to move back to Patna and continued to “work from home”. A family packed its entire possessions in two cars and undertook a five-day journey to Manipur. Slum-dwellers across Delhi, gripped by fear of the virus and unable to eke out a living, took trains and buses arranged by the government, non-governmental organisations and individuals back to their villages and hometowns.
Owing to the high population density in slums, where several households share a toilet, it is impossible to practise physical distancing or maintain hygiene. Access to water, a major challenge for slum-dwellers even in normal times, is an added problem in the fight against the coronavirus. In Jai Hind and other slum colonies of South Delhi, people depend on the Delhi Jal Board tankers that supply water once a week.
Towards mid-June, the first positive case was detected in the Jai Hind colony. The affected woman was shifted to a temporary structure erected at the edge of the slum. “She was not allowed to see her baby and she did not even have access to a toilet. The waste was collected in a container,” said Sajida, a domestic worker, who was jolted by the entire episode.
After this, in a decision taken overnight, Sajida and her family decided to send all their furniture and travel by train to their village in West Bengal. Since several slum-dwellers were vacating their residences, trucks were plying regularly between Delhi and villages in West Bengal with furniture and other household items.
“It was a wise decision as now there are close to 20 cases in the slum,” Sajida told Frontline over phone. She said she had started working in the fields back home and was generally happier. Most Jai Hind residents worked as taxi drivers or domestic workers in upmarket homes nearby.
Sultana (name changed), who lives in a slum near Jai Hind, said she was aware of the rising number of cases in the slum but did not have the option of going back to her village as her family did not own agricultural land. An orphan who was first trafficked and then sold into marriage, she had built a respectable life for herself in the city. While going back to the village was not an option for her, she said that work was drying up in the city.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government failed to carry out its decision to screen every house in Delhi by July 6. Instead, it said it would screen only those living in the containment zones.
An estimated 3.6 lakh people live in the 445 containment zones of Delhi. Some 1.6 lakh among them were identified as belonging to high-risk or symptomatic category. These include senior citizens, pregnant women and people with co-morbidities such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.
Within this group, 7.5 per cent were found to be positive through rapid antigen tests. Those who tested negative but showed COVID-19 symptoms were asked to take RT-PCR tests.
The latest ICMR guidelines state that “track and treat” was the “only way to prevent spread of infection and save lives” and that it was “imperative that testing should be made widely available to all symptomatic individuals”.
Every laboratory in Delhi demands a doctor's prescription for a test although guidelines do not mandate this.
Even as Delhi became the third worst-affected region in the country after Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, Kejriwal urged residents not to panic and provided a positive spin on the increasing numbers.
“COVID-19 cases have crossed 1-lakh mark in Delhi but there is no need to panic as around 72,000 people have also recovered. Out of 25,000 active patients, 15,000 are being treated at home. The death rate has also come down. We’ve also started the country’s first corona plasma bank. Our trials have shown that plasma therapy can help moderate patients improve significantly,” he said in a digital press briefing.
He asked people to donate plasma and said on Twitter that fewer people in Delhi required hospitalisation and more were recovering at home. “Whereas there were around 2,300 new patients daily last week, the number of patients in hospital has gone down from 6,200 to 5,300,” he said in a tweet, adding that 9,900 beds were available for COVID-19 patients in Delhi.
However, there were reports of patients complaining that hospitals refused to admit them citing non-availability of beds as the reason although the Delhi government’s app on COVID-19 treatment showed beds were available. This indicated a mismatch in the data put out by the Delhi government and hospitals, leading to confusion.
Meanwhile, the Central government said that the average number of samples tested per day had gone up in Delhi from 5,481 to 18,766 in a month and that in spite of increased testing, the positivity rate (the average rate at which samples test positive) had declined from around 30 per cent to 10 per cent in the last three weeks.