COVID-19 Update: Maharashtra

Maharashtra for opening up slowly

Print edition : June 18, 2021

A municipal corporation health worker collects swab sample of an autorickshaw driver who had allegedly violated COVID-19 norms, in Nagpur on May 27. Photo: PTI

Even as the Maharashtra government prepares to announce the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, it is well aware of the dilemma ahead.

Even as the Maharashtra government prepares to announce the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, it is well aware of the dilemma ahead. To open up would mean an almost certain spurt in cases. To continue with the restrictions would be to further suffocate economic activity in a situation where many businesses have already been damaged irrevocably—especially the small and medium ones.

In order to meet the challenge, the government is apparently considering a three-phase easing of restrictions. After two months of a semi-lockdown in the State—more correctly referred to as restrictions—the doubling rate of coronavirus cases in Mumbai has dropped to 345 days. In April, when the restrictions were declared, the doubling rate had soared to 35 days in a throwback to 2020 when the city was in the grip of the virus.

There is still no sign of a significant decline in Mumbai, but there is a definite improvement from April 4 when the city reported 11,163 cases – the highest ever since March 2020. On May 25, Mumbai reported close to 1,037 cases and a test positivity rate of 4.94 per cent, significantly lower than the 10.96 per cent recorded 20 days earlier. The city’s recovery rate has been encouraging, with 94 per cent of patients recovering. But the rest of the State is not doing as well. On May 25, there were 24,136 new cases, 601 deaths and 36,176 recoveries. The State’s fatality rate was 1.61 per cent. As of May 25, Maharashtra had a caseload of 56,26,155.

Worryingly, the trend of the virus spreading to the districts continues. Speaking to Frontline sometime ago, Dr Shashank Joshi, member of the State COVID Task Force, had said that an increase in the number of coronavirus patients away from urban areas would be a nightmare situation for the public health care system. He had also pointed out that while rural areas had been largely unaffected in the first phase, they were hit badly after the lifting of the lockdown last year as people returned home and carried the virus with them.

Also read: Misplaced optimism as COVID numbers decline

Eighteen of the 36 districts in the State continue to record a high number of cases. These “red” districts are Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, Raigad, Satara, Kolhapur, Sangli, Latur, Osmanabad, Beed, Hingoli, Akola, Amravati, Wardha, Gadchiroli, Nashik, Ahmednagar, Pune and Thane.

On May 25, the government announced that institutional quarantine in the “red” districts was mandatory for suspected and confirmed cases. In order to accommodate the new numbers that need institutional care, the State is setting up more COVID care centres in rural Maharashtra. Even districts close to Mumbai, like Thane, Palghar and Raigad, have seen a steady rise in cases and deaths and also, surprisingly, recoveries.

The reason for the new rule was obvious. While announcing it, Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said that people were more likely to violate home isolation rules and the clampdown was expected to slow down the spread. He also brought up the much-discussed issue of small homes where the luxury of a separate room and bathroom is an impossibility. Such situations ultimately result in entire families getting infected.

After a meeting with district officials, Rajesh Tope told the media: “After reviewing the situation in the districts we found that many are not at par with the State’s average recovery rate of 93 per cent, the positivity rate of 12 per cent or the death rate of 8.5 per cent. We will build more CCCs [COVID care centres) in these regions and the gram panchayats have been authorised to use 25 per cent of the Finance Commission’s grant to create 25 to 30 isolation beds [in their jurisdiction].”

Encouragingly, the focus has moved to prevention with Rajesh Tope emphasising that testing would be ramped up in non-urban areas. The Minister also said ASHA workers had been trained in the use of rapid antigen and self-testing kits. Learning quickly from the new behaviour of the virus, wards for children are also being set up by teams of paediatricians in districts.

Also read: How the poor live in times of pandemic and lockdowns

With the kharif season looming, the health of rural Maharashtra becomes even more crucial. A collapse of the rural economy would be catastrophic for the State. COVID has put a spoke in the wheels of the usual pre-monsoon agricultural preparations. Alphonso mango growers have already taken a severe beating because of unseasonal weather conditions and poor access to markets.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was the first to get off the mark when it floated international tenders for vaccines. But with global demand being what it is, the response was not quite as expected and the last date to receive bids has been extended. As of May 25, 7,38,713 people have been fully vaccinated.

With a third wave of the infection expected to hit the State in June or July, the precautions taken by the State government have been lauded. What remains is citizen cooperation over adhering to basic COVID protocol.