COVID second wave

COVID second wave: Telangana slow to act

Print edition : May 21, 2021

At the Government ENT Hospital in Hyderabad on May 1. A shortage of vaccines is hampering the State’s vaccination process. Photo: PTI

A sudden surge in infections, coupled with the Centre’s alleged bias in oxygen and vaccine supply, worsens the situation in the State, but the TRS government also stands accused of low level of testing and under-reporting of cases.

While the Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao government in Telangana ponders its next course of action, the number of COVID-19 cases in the State continues to surge ahead, adversely affecting the lives of a majority of its 3.72 crore people. They have been hit hard by a lack of liquid medical oxygen (LMO), and shortage of of hospital beds, the antiviral drug remdesivir, and vaccines.

The number of active COVID-19 cases is edging ever so closer to the psychologically daunting 100,000-mark. As the second wave ravaged Telangana, the number of new infections grew by an alarming average of 2 per cent every day in the week ended April 29, with the official number of fatalities crossing 2,500 since the pandemic broke over a year ago.

In April, Telangana has, on more than one occasion, stared grimly at a severe vaccine shortage, which brought the vaccination process to a near complete halt. On April 18, the administering of doses totally stopped, while on April 28 the State was left with just 1.2 lakh doses.

Dr G. Srinivas Rao, Director of Public Health, said on April 28 that the next three to four weeks would be very crucial for the State, adding that it would take the same span of time for the situation to stabilise and come under some degree of control. With the marriage and festival season approaching, it could be a tough task to impose COVID protocols. Telangana has already notified a fine of Rs.1,000 on anyone who disobeys the mask mandate.

However, Health Minister Etela Rajender claimed that the State was beginning to cope much better than most other States. Speaking to Frontline, he said: “There is hardly any panic among the people. The government has managed to augment the oxygen supply, even going to the extent of requesting the Indian Air Force to ferry (empty) cryogenic tankers to the State. We are also getting oxygen tankers by train from Ongole, which is over 300 kilometres from the capital city of Hyderabad.”

Also read: Pandemic second wave deepens into unprecedented crisis

The Minister also claimed that Telangana was in a better position thanmany other States conducting tests, and supplying beds and oxygen to hospitals and COVID-19 care centres. Etela Rajender said: “The government has taken many measures over the last one year. When COVID-19 broke out last year, Telangana had just 1,000 beds with oxygen supply, but this number has now been pushed up to 10,000, with an additional 3,000 beds in the pipeline.” According to the Minister, as of May 1 the State was in possession of 50,000 beds for COVID-19 patients, 18,000 of them being intense care unit beds and 10,000 equipped with oxygen supply.

Accusations against the Centre

The past two weeks have also witnessed the State taking on the Centre, accusing it of stepmotherly treatment in the issue of oxygen supply. To buttress this point, Etela Rajender cited the Centre’s decision to allocate oxygen supplies to Telangana from Rourkela in Odisha, nearly 1,300 km away, instead of supplying it from nearby steel plants such as the ones at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh or Bellary in Karnataka. Tankers from Hyderabad would take seven days to make the return trip after being loaded with liquid medical oxygen (LMO) at Rourkela, he pointed out.

The Minister also referred to the Centre’s April 21 decision to control the supply of remdesivir, along with vaccines and oxygen, and accused the Centre of being partial to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States such as Gujarat. He alleged that Gujarat had been given 1.63 lakh vials of remdesivir while Telangana had been allocated just 21,551 vials for the April 21-30 period, which was “highly insufficient”.

Etela Rajender said that the Chief Minister instructed the Health Department to order 4 lakh vials of remdesivir once the State began seeing an influx of COVID-19 positive patients from neighbouring States such as Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.

Also read: COVID second wave: Clueless Centre cannot hold

He said: “To avoid a shortfall of remdesivir injections, we instantly placed an order for 4 lakh vials. We approached Hetero Drugs, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories and other pharmaceutical companies manufacturing remdesivir to scale up production. But now, however much the production is ramped up by the pharma companies within the State, the allocations are to be done by the Centre. The Centre needs to listen and respond to the needs of States.”

On April 23 Telangana became the first State to requisition the use of the IAF’s four-engine, military-transport C-17 Globemaster III aircraft to airlift empty oxygen tankers to Odisha to pick up LMO. The exercise helped Telangana procure oxygen faster, thereby meeting the oxygen requirements of its rapidly growing number of COVID-19 patients. Taking off from Begumpet Airport the C-17 Globemaster III ferried four oxygen tankers to Rourkela Steel Plant in Odisha. Once filled with oxygen, the tankers returned to Telangana by road.

According to Etela Rajender, the airlifting saved the State three days in transport time. He told Frontline that after the government established 22 LMO tanks at government hospitals Telangana was not facing storage of oxygen. He said: “Once filled, the oxygen will be sufficient for 48 hours. But besides this, bulk oxygen cylinders were also airlifted as a precautionary measure to avoid any scarcity.”

According to Dr Srinivas Rao, unnecessary panic was causing many people to run around looking for hospital beds when 85 per cent of people infected by COVID-19 do not need to be admitted to hospital and could very well be treated at home. He also said that people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19 were unnecessarily thronging testing centres.

Dr Rao said: “People are going to testing centres out of fear though they do not have any symptom, but they contract the infection at these centres.”

Also read: The fiasco that is India’s COVID-19 vaccine policy

Testing, or the lack of enough testing, has been a bugbear ever since the pandemic broke out, and on several occasions the government was at the receiving end of the Telangana High Court’s stinging remarks over its poor testing record. On April 29, a division bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice Hima Kohli and Justice B. Vijaysen Reddy questioned the State on the reducing number of tests. It said: “Your data and media reports only say that tests had come down by 10,000 on April 27 compared to the earlier day and on April 28, it was down by 8,000 tests. Your report only says that tests have come down to around 80,000 from one lakh. Automatically, when tests are lowered, the infected cases will also come down correspondingly. It is nothing but wrapping up data.” It was only after the Bench came down heavily on the regime, accusing it of mishandling the COVID-19 crisis, that the government on April 20 announced a night curfew across the State. A day earlier, the Bench had served the government a de facto 48-hour ultimatum. It warned that if the State government did not take concrete steps within the next two days, the court would be forced to step in and play the role of an executive.

Despite a second wave of infections, the government had been reluctant to impose any kind of lockdown. It has repeatedly cited the loss of Rs.28,000 crore it incurred in revenue because of the lockdown imposed during the first wave of the pandemic.

Under-reporting of cases

The court, which initially chastised the State for not conducting enough tests, repeatedly advised the government to be transparent and alert to the pandemic. Both the Congress and the BJP have accused the government of covering up its inefficiency by downplaying the COVID-19 situation and, under-reporting infection and fatality numbers.

Even doctors working at government hospitals have alleged that the COVID-19 deaths are far in excess of the numbers mentioned in the government’s daily media bulletins. They have provided information on the number of deaths at major government hospitals in support of their allegation.

Also read: Telangana feeling the strain of rising cases, vaccine shortage

The regional media repeatedly published reports alleging under-reporting to the tune of more than 70 per cent. For instance, Eenadu, the highest circulated Telugu newspaper, published a report based on data sourced by its journalists primarily from the district health authorities that a total of 24,029 COVID-19 cases had been detected in 12 of Telangana’s 31 districts during the April 14-17 period. However, the State government bulletin placed the figure at 6,189 cases—a mismatch of 17,840 cases or 74.24 per cent. Other Telugu newspapers also reported on the issue but the government denied any under-reporting.

In response to such reports, the government merely chose to stop the public release of district health bulletins.

Dr K. Ramesh Reddy, Director of Medical Education, said that non-COVID patients in critical condition were also being admitted at several of these hospitals and that the lists showed the combined figures of the deaths of COVID and non-COVID patients.

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