New Tamil Nadu government in action from Day 1

Print edition : June 04, 2021

M.K. Stalin, Chief Minister, inspects the Chennai Trade Centre, which has temporarily been converted into a COVID-19 facility, in Chennai on May 7. Photo: PTI

Amid the rising number of deaths, the new government pulls out all the stops to meet medical needs such as beds, oxygen and medicines.

In just the first 11 days of May, Tamil Nadu reported more than 2,000 COVID deaths, a number that shocked politicians and policymakers alike, even as the new government sprang into action to meet the demands for additional hospital beds, oxygen and COVID drugs, which are in short supply in most hospitals all over India. In the first wave, it took over three months from the first reported death for the fatality number to hit the 2,000-mark in the State.

The progression of the severity of the pandemic can be gauged from the fact that 1,059 deaths occurred in just four days in May (293 on May 12; 298 on May 11; 232 on May 10; and 236 on May 9). From the beginning of the first wave in 2020 until May 1, 2021, the State had recorded 14,193 deaths. By May 12, this number had grown to 16,471—an addition of 2,278 in just 12 days.

In the first wave, the first case of COVID-19 infection was identified in Tamil Nadu on March 7, 2020, and the first death was reported on March 25. Two months later, on June 27, the fatalities had crossed the 1,000-mark.

The pandemic is causing fatalities in Tamil Nadu at a faster rate than ever before, indicating its virulence and the extent of community spread—facts that point to the half-hearted nature of the efforts of the caretaker government led by Edappadi K. Palaniswami to control the biggest disaster the State had ever faced.

(Tamil Nadu went to the polls, along with three other States and a Union Territory, on April 6. The Election Commission of India, which was pulled up by the Madras High Court for its lack of pandemic preparedness, declared that counting of votes would be done on May 2 for all five States—almost a month later.)


Thangam Thennarasu, the new Industries Minister who is also in charge of organising oxygen from industries for medical needs, told Frontline: “The government knew that a second wave was happening because everyone was aware of what was going on in Mumbai and other places in early April. Even after knowing this, the previous government did not prepare itself to face the situation…If they had heeded to the advice of our leader and Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, people would not be struggling so much to find a bed with an oxygen line.”

According to him, after the election on April 6, the AIADMK government had “at least three clear weeks” to aggressively push for upgradation of facilities, by taking into consideration the events in Mumbai, Delhi and elsewhere. Instead, it did not take the required steps and it was left to the officials to undertake firefighting when the situation worsened.

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R. Sakkarapani, the Food and Civil Supplies Minister, said that even before the DMK Cabinet took the oath of office on May 7, Stalin had clearly laid down the path forward. He said: “As soon as we took oath, the Chief Minister held a Cabinet meeting. Ministers were assigned the worst-affected districts to coordinate the efforts at the local level.” He added that he was assigned Coimbatore, the second most affected district (after Chennai) as on May 12.

Every Minister and most members of the Legislative Assembly are engaged in one way or another in providing aid for their constituents. It is not an easy job, given the fact that hospitals are filling up fast, and, on some days, there are queues outside government hospitals. For example, at a meeting of urban local body officers a day after he was sworn in on May 8, K.N. Nehru, the Local Administration Minister, was briefed on immediate needs: ambulances, hospital beds and oxygen.

The Minister liaised with travel agencies and asked them to convert all available sports utility vehicles into ambulances. On May 13, a fleet of 250 such vehicles was ready for use by the Chennai Corporation and the Greater Chennai area, which had the highest concentration of cases and deaths. Regarding beds, he asked a bureaucrat to use his military contacts and find out how makeshift beds could be made quickly for the injured near the frontlines. “We will set up an additional 15,000 beds in another week,” he said on May 13, after tying up the details.

Oxygen quest

The scramble to source oxygen continues, especially after Kerala made it clear that it will not be able to spare oxygen from a private firm in Kanjikode in Palakkad district for the needs of the western districts of Tamil Nadu, such as Coimbatore. (Kerala’s new COVID infection numbers were higher than that of Tamil Nadu as on May 12). Coimbatore has the second highest number of infections in the State, and most hospitals survive on oxygen supplies on a day-to-day basis. A hospital administrator said: “At one point, we had six hours of oxygen. This is not an isolated problem for us alone. All hospitals face similar problems.”

Also read: Mumbai shows the way in second wave

Although the first fleet of vehicles carrying oxygen produced in Sterlite’s copper smelter in Thoothukudi rolled out on May 13, it could not even meet a tiny fraction of the State’s need. Vedanta, the corporate group that operates Sterlite, said in a release: “The first tanker carrying 4.8 tonnes of liquid oxygen is going to Tirunelveli/Thoothukudi. We will be dispatching two oxygen tankers on a daily basis to begin with, and gradually scale this up as we expand production.” Vedanta’s lawyer had told the Supreme Court that it had a production capacity of 1,000 metric tonnes of oxygen per day.

Stalin’s letter to Prime Minister

Realising the seriousness of the issue, Chief Minister Stalin, who was briefed by officials even before he was formally sworn in, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon after assuming office on May 7. He said: “At present, Tamil Nadu’s daily consumption of medical oxygen is around 440 tonnes. This is projected to increase by another 400 tonnes in the next two weeks, taking our total requirement to around 840 tonnes. Unfortunately, in the National Oxygen Plan, the allocation for Tamil Nadu is only 220 tonnes.”

He pointed out that Tamil Nadu officials had discussed the issue with the Centre, which had decided to allocate 476 tonnes for its needs. But the orders were yet to be issued, he said. On May 8, a Union Health Ministry official wrote to the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary and the Health Secretary, informing them that Tamil Nadu’s allocation has been increased from 220 tonnes to 419 tonnes.

Although orders were issued, there was no implementation on the ground. Hospitals and administrators continue to request non-governmental organisations and all private bodies to augment oxygen supply. To augment supply, several district administrations have even tapped into car repair shops and all units where welding takes place (the welding process requires oxygen).

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Stalin also wrote to Piyush Goyal, Union Minister for Commerce and Industries, for additional allocation of vials of the anti-COVID drug remdesivir, and the State floated global tenders to buy vaccines.

Remdesivir demand

The queue for remdesivir vials is growing with each day at Chennai’s Kilpauk Medical College (KMC) hospital, which was initially the only place where it was available. A Health Department official said: “We are unable to open dispensing counters for this drug at multiple places because the stock allocated to us is very low.” People from across the State have been crowding at the KMC counter for the drug, forcing the government to move part of the stock to a few more districts.

An official said: “We ordered and paid for 2 lakh vials [of remdesivir] late last month. This was from a private company. Suddenly we learn that our quota was cut and the rest was diverted to another State.” Stalin has demanded that Tamil Nadu be given at least 20,000 vials per day. The current allotment stands at 7,000.

With a shortage of drugs to treat the disease, oxygen-supported beds, and a massive shortage of vaccines, the government decided to impose a two-week lockdown from May 10. An official said: “There was no other way out. We need that breathing space.”

Also read: Centre's failure in managing the second wave exposed

From January 16 to May 10, not even 10 per cent of the State’s population had been vaccinated: only about 65 lakh people had been given the first dose. The progress of vaccination was reportedly hit by a vaccine shortage too.

For instance, on May 9, only 25,448 people received a dose, while the number was just over 94,000 on May 10.

Although the number of daily COVID deaths is hitting unprecedented levels in the State, it appears that there is both clarity and concern among people across the State: clarity over the fact that the infection does not cause immediate death, and concern about being able to find a bed in a hospital or drugs prescribed, when needed.

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