COVID-19 Update: Tamil Nadu

COVID-19: An all-out battle in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : June 18, 2021

The couple who tied the knot on board a SpiceJet chartered flight from Madurai on May 23. Photo: PTI

Blatant violation of COVID-19 related norms in the urban centres and the pandemic’s rapid spread to the rural areas force the new government to pull out all the stops.

In just seven days from May 20, Tamil Nadu recorded over 3,000 COVID-19 deaths officially, and public health officials fear that the infection is spreading to rural areas. The total number of deaths as on May 27 stood at 21,340. However, the gravity of the situation has not pushed many people in the State to take additional precautions to keep themselves safe. Many people are actively looking for ways to circumvent the lockdown by exploiting the lacunae in the rules.

For instance, on May 23, the skies over the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple witnessed a bizarre event: a wedding in an airplane hovering atop the temple, with a couple, Rakesh and Dakshina, tying the knot. This might have been a “cute” event for the news but for the fact that a lockdown was in place and that the wedding was a blatant violation of the rule on how many people could attend it. The mid-air wedding might have gone unnoticed but for someone from the wedding party posting a video on social media, which went viral in a few hours.

The wedding party had taken the Bangalore-Madurai routine flight operated by SpiceJet on lease for two hours. Going by a footage from inside the aircraft, no one was wearing a mask, passengers in the middle seats did not seem to have been given PPE kits, and the bride, groom and the entourage were all decked up. It is is reasonable to infer from the footage that all concerned, including the airport officials, the Central security forces, airline staff and the crew, were aware of the wedding plan.

When reporters sought answers from the local police on the event, the Madurai Rural Superintendent of Police (S.P.) said that since the wedding took place in the skies above the temple, the Commissioner of Police was the competent authority to investigate the matter. However, the Commissioner said that the S.P. should take action since the Madurai Airport was within his purview.

While no action has been taken against anyone barring the crew of the flight, who were derostered, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation has ordered an investigation into the event and ordered the airline to lodge a complaint with the police against the wedding party. At the time of going to the press, there were no further developments.

SpiceJet feigned innocence when reporters sought details about the trip. A report in The Hindu on May 25 said: “The client was clearly briefed on COVID-19 guidelines to be followed and denied permission for any activity on board. The approval for this flight was taken as a joy ride for the wedding group.”

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While this was one of the most brazen cases of lockdown violation, there have been plenty of instances from across Tamil Nadu, indicating that people are not taking the deadly disease seriously. In another case in Cuddalore, a family that was returning from attending a wedding in the temple town of Chidambaram on May 26 claimed it was heading to the hospital. The police, who grew suspicious, packed them off in an ambulance to a hospital, although the family kept changing their story.

People in Tamil Nadu have found innovative ways to flout lockdown norms, prompting Chief Minister M.K. Stalin to direct officials to implement the rules strictly. Speaking to Frontline, he said that the cases in Chennai appeared to have peaked. Other urban areas were slightly behind Chennai and will reach their peaks in the coming weeks, he added. Stalin said: “We have to now focus on the rural areas and ramp up facilities across the State. The administration is working on this crucial aspect.” He added that the government was working with a definitive plan to control the spread of the pandemic to rural areas.

Focus on western districts

Just as cases in Chennai are plateauing, the number of cases in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu’s textile powerhouse, is rising sharply. In fact, on May 26 Coimbatore overtook Chennai in the number of cases reported, recording 4,268 cases to Chennai’s 3,561. This prompted the administration to augment measures and the Chief Minister called for a meeting on May 27, exclusively focused on the western region of the State.

An official said that Coimbatore’s numbers were high because it was getting cases from the whole of the western region, in an arc that extends from Salem in the north to Dindigul in the south. Although the government had ramped up the bed capacity to 7,000, about 3,000 beds were taken up by people from outside the district. Vanathi Sethupathi, an Erode-based doctor, said on Twitter: “We have all been referring critical cases to Coimbatore for so many years now; in a crisis this strains the system beyond capacity.”

The Coimbatore region, which is home to many engineering, foundry and automobile spare parts industries, is now facing the tough choice of shutting down the industries for the next few weeks, because officials and local residents believe that working in factory environments without adequate distancing is also compounding the problem.

The State government said it would focus on enforcement of the lockdown, ramping up vaccination, and augmenting hospital facilities in the coming week. Depending on the number of new cases, the State will relax restrictions in a phased manner. In response to a request from the public, the government has postponed all college examinations.

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On May 20, Stalin launched the vaccination drive for those in the 18-44 age group. The government aims to push out all vaccines from the shelves to the arms of people as soon as possible. It has approached vaccine manufacturers and the Government of India with a request to deliver vaccines at an early date. Stalin, who visited the defunct Government of India vaccine production facility near Chennai, in the neighbouring district of Chengalpattu, requested the Central government to produce vaccines at the plant.

Stalin said said: “All our energies are here. We will have to get over this before we tackle the many other problems that confront our State and our people.”