COVID-19 Update

Tamil Nadu: Districts in focus

Print edition : July 31, 2020

Chief Minister Edappadi K.Palaniswami laying the foundation stone for relaying of water pipelines from Salem to Attur, at Mettupatti in Salem district on June 28. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

Tribal residents keeping vigil at the entrance of a village, in Udhagamandalam on July 2. A COVID-19 case was reported in a neighbouring village Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

A mobile fever camp for screening residents at Pudur in Madurai on July 2. Photo: R. Ashok

The government, which refuses to make its fight against the pandemic inclusive, claims that the COVID-19 curve is flattening in Chennai. But it has a new reason to worry: the rise in infections in the districts.

TAMIL NADU's COVID-19 control effort continues to remain an exclusive show of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its government. This has proved inadequate to deal with the gigantic problem on hand, but the government is not inclined to make the struggle inclusive.

The government has steadfastly refused to involve in the effort the opposition parties or film stars, who have a massive following, or even former cricketers who are now part of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Chennai is home to one of the most successful teams in IPL, the Chennai Super Kings.

Nearly all political parties flagged this issue from March onwards, including Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M.K. Stalin and Makkal Needhi Maiam founder Kamal Haasan.

Most of these well-meaning suggestions have been met with derisive comments from the ruling party, including Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy himself. He once asked Stalin if he was a doctor. His party spokespersons have asserted that no political party, including the DMK, has come forward with any worthwhile suggestions.

Until now, the Chief Minister has not even convened an all-party meet on tackling the pandemic, while all neighbouring States and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself have done so.

While Ministers have been complaining about the public’s non-cooperation in safety measues such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing, the campaign to reach the message across to the people is almost exclusively handled by the Chief Minister and a few nondescript film personalities.

Although the Chief Minister has been featured in videos with public safety messages for the past few months, the message is yet to make widespread impact.

The government has also refrained from imposing massive fines on violators of lockdown and other safety measures unlike its Kerala counterpart.

Clearly, the AIADMK’s eyes are on the Assembly elections due next year.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 infections continues to grow. Tamil Nadu accounts for about a seventh of all infections in India—over 1 lakh when the country crossed 7 lakh infections on July 6—and the numbers show no sign of slowing down.

This has not prevented officials from claiming that the State’s COVID-19 response had worked and that the infection rates had gone down in Chennai. There is a declining trend in Chennai but there is not enough data to prove that city has managed to flatten the curve.

In a video conference with district collectors on July 6, Chief Secretary K. Shanmugam placed more emphasis on controlling the infection spread in the districts.

Until now, of the 114,978 infections in the State, Chennai accounts for 70,017 (as of July 6).

In July, the total infections in the State each day were: 3,882 on July 1, 4,343 on July 2, 4,329 on July 3, 4,280 on July 4, 4,150 on July 5 and 3,827 on July 6. Of this, Chennai’s share was 2,182 (July 1), 2,027 (July 2), 2,082 (July 3), 1,842 (July 4), 1,713 (July 5) and 1,747 (July 6).

It is clear that the number of positive cases in all the other districts combined was higher than that of Chennai on all days barring July 1:2,316 on July 2, 2,247 on July 3, 2,438 on July 4, 2,437 on July 5 and 2,080 on July 6.

Officials are heaving a sigh of relief at this declining trend, but without a proper stratified random sampling it is not possible to come to a conclusion that COVID-19 cases in the city have actually fallen.

Officials said that their optimism was based on two facts: firstly, Tamil Nadu was testing more than any other State, as a result of which more cases were coming to light, and secondly, rural Tamil Nadu was still vigilant against the disease.

In many villages, an encouraging sign was that residents were watching out for any outsider coming in.

“I visited 5-6 districts the last week. I saw that in many villages the entrance to the village was blocked with thorny plants or other barricades. For villagers to go out there is a separate path in another part of the village,” said a political functionary.

An official said that unlike Karnataka or Telangana, Tamil Nadu was not prioritising the economy over its citizens’ lives. Although there has been pressure on the Chief Minister to follow the model in these States and open up economic activity, he has refused to do so.

While these are positive signs, critics said there are several basic issues on which the State has been floundering.

“It appears that the basic test-trace-isolate-treat model has been abandoned in favour of other modes in large parts of the State,” said a former bureaucrat. “But the fact is that this model is relevant even now in districts where the infections are still fewer,” he added.

A former public health official said that it was strange that the government delayed installing oxygen pipelines for all beds in hospitals. “This was a requirement from day 1. We are doing it after five months of experimentation,” he added.

Other such issues are of pool testing, which experts and commentators advocated in the media and directly to the government, and testing of people in fever clinics or camps. The Chennai Corporation did run camps early on but they were few and far between.

The rise in infections in the districts is cause for concern. With fewer resources than Chennai and hard-pressed for tertiary care, the districts will find controlling the infections a massive challenge.

July will, therefore, be critical for the State, even as the COVID-19 response remains a government-only show.