COVID-19 Update

Maharashtra government forced to give undue importance to politics during the pandemic

Print edition : October 09, 2020

A roadside barber at work in Mumbai on September 16. The State government has by and large gone through the process of opening up cautiously. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Daily-wage labourers waiting to get hired for the day in Mumbai on September 16. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

The fight against COVID-19 fades into the background as the opposition tries to beat the government image in political games.

After navigating the worst of the coronavirus crisis, the Maharashtra government is now faced with an even greater challenge. “Mission Begin Again”, which signalled the opening up of businesses and industries two months ago, is proving to be more difficult than the lockdown.

Despite the rise in the number of COVID cases, the State government had no choice but to open up the State. It has by and large gone through the process cautiously, but there is now a sense that the government is overwhelmed by demands of business to open up totally.

There have been bursts of overoptimism. such as the one that led to the decision to shut the jumbo COVID centres which had to be retracted because there is still a need for such facilities. The demands from businesses are so pressing that the wisdom of slow and steady winning the race might just have to be shelved.

Said a Health Department official of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC): “Most of us have known all along that there is really very little anyone can do in a pandemic. So, we took the best course and that was to minimise physical interaction. But those restrictions could only be possible for a while. As it is, India’s lockdown is being called one of the most severe in the world. We knew we would have to open up at some point and we knew that the virus would spread rapidly again. There is a factor of uncontrollable inevitability in this. You cannot blame any government. You cannot blame people for wanting to restart their lives and businesses. We will all have to exercise personal caution and learn new ways of going about our days.”

These words were similar to what Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said in his public address a few days later, on September 13, when he announced the Majhe Kutumb Majhi Jababdari–My Family, My Responsibility–campaign. Formally launched on September 15, it is aimed at promoting individual responsible behaviour as a means to ending the pandemic and holding door-to-door surveys to asses health and offer help. The first phase, up to October 10, will target 2.25 crore families. The next phase will be from October 12 to 24. Uddhav Thackeray spoke extensively of the need for individual responsibility as a means of staying safe and of returning to a normal way of life. He emphasised the old rules of hand hygiene, sanitisers and masks, saying they were the warriors in this fight.

High caseload

Maharashtra has more than one-fourth of India’s caseload and nearly 40 per cent of the COVID deaths. Districts such as Solapur, Kolhapur and Raigad are nearing 1,000 deaths each. On September 15, the State’s coronavirus tally was 10,97,856. Deaths numbered 30,409. Recoveries were 7,75,273 and there were 2,91,797 active cases. As many as 54,09,060 tests had been conducted until then. As on September 15, Mumbai’s caseload was 1,72,010 and deaths 8,181. Pune now leads with 2,27,307 cases but has fewer deaths at 5,222.

Said a Health Department official: “We are doing what needs to be done. Testing has been increased. And from September 16 house-to-house testing began. We had miscalculated earlier and that’s why there was a plan to begin shutting the jumbo centres, but those will continue.”

The government had also stopped 73 small private hospitals from treating COVID cases, saying they should go back to treating patients with other ailments, but this order too has been partially withdrawn. Of the 73 hospitals, 27 have been asked to be on standby to start handling coronavirus cases.

The My Family My Responsibility campaign has 10,000 volunteers who will be part of the door-to-door screening programme. Taking a leaf out of the Dharavi case, the BMC says it is going to ask private practitioners in each locality to work with them. This is a move to pre-empt citizens who refuse to be tested by those screening people from door to door for COVID. A BMC official confided that they anticipate some “resistance in middle class areas and in high-rise buildings to our door-to-door teams. These citizens like to go to private doctors and so we are asking these doctors to share data with us. This is the only way to locate and isolate cases.”

He also said there was some conflict between I.S. Chahal, the BMC Commissioner, and doctors on the COVID Task Force. Apparently, the doctors are frustrated by red tape at every stage. But on the other hand, there is encouraging news of that 35 specialists from Mumbai’s best hospitals will assist the BMC at the jumbo COVID centres. Though the centres are well equipped, they lack qualified staff who can handle pandemic issues. These experts will bridge the gap. Some 250 additional beds have been added to the city’s seven jumbo centres.

Opposition’s moment

As the State opens up, politics is being played out more openly. The investigations into the death of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June have taken a direction that seems to have nothing to do with the unfortunate incident and everything to do with squeezing political gain out of it. The tragedy has become a platform for everyone. The Maha Vikas Aghadi (a coalition of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress)–and particularly the Shiv Sena and Uddav Thackeray–kept calm throughout the drama, in spite of the accusations thrown at them, but this slipped when the actor Kangana Ranaut called Mumbai Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and the Mumbai Police a mafia. The Shiv Sena-controlled BMC retaliated by demolishing some illegal constructions at her home. But it earned the Shiv Sena negative points even from its supporters, and the High Court of Bombay called it “highly deplorable”.

The second incident that dulled the Sena’s recently acquired gloss was the violence against Madan Sharma, a Navy veteran. Sharma forwarded a cartoon in which Uddhav Thackeray is seen bowing to a picture of Congress president Sonia Gandhi that is entitled Matoshree–a clever play on the word meaning mother and the name of the Thackeray residence, but the Shiv Sena was in no mood for wit. A group of Sainiks landed up at Sharma’s housing complex in Mumbai and beat him up severely. Six men were arrested and are in judicial custody, but the damage had been done. The Maharashtra versus north India rivalry, which was ignited with Rajput’s death, gained more fuel with the Sharma episode.

Sharad Pawar was the voice of reason when he said there was “no need to take cognisance” of comments on the Mumbai Police or the reference to POK.

Following suit, Uddhav Thackeray too showed some presence of mind. In his public address, he did not mention any of this though he did say that even if he refrained from mentioning certain issues it did not mean that he lacked solutions for them. He did, however, say that the State was being defamed for political reasons and when the time came to take off his mask (referring to his position as Chief Minister) he would speak on the opposition’s plan to defame the State.

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