COVID-19 Update

Delhi: Double blow

Print edition : September 25, 2020

People queue up outside a COVID-19 virus testing van at the Mahindra Park area in New Delhi on August 21. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A boy selling masks in Old Delhi area on August 21. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Delhi administration carries out a demolition drive in the slum clusters even as COVID-19 cases and containment zones rise sharply again in the National Capital Territory.

After a lull for over a month, Delhi witnessed a sharp spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in August. Daily new infections nearly doubled, to 2,024 on August 30 from 1,250 on August 21. On August 30, the number of containment zones was 820, as against 589 on August 21. By the end of August, the number of cases in Delhi had reached a staggering 1,74,748.

Expressing shock at the sudden rise in the caseload and containment zones, the Delhi High Court said: “Looking at aforesaid rising figures, by no stretch of imagination can it be stated that the COVID-19 dragon has been tamed much less slain. It is looming large in the city and needs to be tackled on priority.”

A division bench consisting of Justices Hima Kohli and Subramonium Prasad expressed dissatisfaction with the testing being conducted in the national capital and ordered the government to re-strategise so that more asymptomatic people could be tested. According to the sero-survey conducted by the Delhi government, 77 per cent of Delhi’s population was still susceptible to the virus and a significant proportion remained asymptomatic, which might “serve as silent spreader of the disease” and pose a “greater challenge for the health system to stop virus transmission.”

While the combined capacity of private and public laboratories in Delhi to do reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests was 14,000, the actual testing done was half that number, between 5,000 and 6,000 on average. Rapid antigen tests (RAT) increased only incrementally (8,082 tests on August 23 and 16,013 on August 28). Given the huge spike in cases, the bench asked the Delhi government to make optional or do away with the requirement of a prescription from a private doctor to undergo an RT-PCR test. The bench also asked the Indian Council of Medical Research to consider issuing a fresh advisory in respect of Delhi, but was told that the ICMR only issued nationwide advisories and States must declare their own set of guidelines.

The High Court order was timely because the Ministry of Home Affairs had declared Unlock 4.0, permitting free movement of people in almost all sectors.

All intra-State and inter-State movement of persons and goods, including for cross-border trade with neighbouring countries, has been permitted. States and Union Territories were barred from imposing any local lockdown outside containment zones. Delhi Metro will start operations from September 7 in a phased manner.

In this scenario, migrant workers returning to Delhi were at risk. Many of them might be asymptomatic carriers of the infection and would, therefore, need to be tested and quarantined, observed the court. It asked the Delhi government to take urgent steps to set up testing facilities at all the three nter-State bus terminals and railway stations.

The Delhi Disaster Management Authority’s order of June 3 that everyone entering Delhi must undergo home quarantine for seven days was being flouted with impunity. The court ordered the District Magistrates to ensure that the order was followed.

The additional standing counsel for the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi submitted to the court that special surveys were conducted for housemaids, daily workers, rickshaw drivers, auto drivers, taxi drivers and lorry drivers as they were a vulnerable category of people and that this would continue on an ongoing basis.

In response to the rising numbers, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal told the media that the situation was “fully under control” and the cases had increased “only marginally”. He said that the rate of testing would be doubled. Kejriwal had repeatedly pushed for the capital to return to normalcy and had recently reopened hotels and weekly markets on a trial basis. The Delhi government’s latest strategy was to enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks through penal provisions. Apparently, the police had penalised more than 1,88,000 people for not wearing masks and the revenue districts had penalised around 41,000 people for violations in the past three months.

In a hurry to return to normalcy, the Delhi government had done little to solve the problems of the working class. Under the lockdown, when the government had forced people to stay at home, the authorities in Delhi had carried on demolitions of slum clusters with no regard to the pandemic.

In June, officials of the Indian Railways forced 13 families to demolish their own houses in Shakurbasti after threatening to evict them. In July, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Public Works Department, Delhi, destroyed about 100 houses in East Laxmi Market, Delhi, during a three-day demolition drive that rendered 150 families homeless during the peak of the pandemic. Also in July, 35 houses of the marginalised Gadia Lohar community were demolished in Gurugram by the State administration without prior notice. The authorities destroyed personal possessions and livelihood items of the affected families during the demolition.

These demolitions were done despite the United Nations (U.N.) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights calling on state parties to impose a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic.

The former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, in a guidance note, emphasised that the human right to adequate housing could not be derogated in times of emergency and urged all states to end all evictions until the end of the pandemic and for a reasonable period of time thereafter.

Between March 16 and July 31 alone, over 20,000 people were forcefully evicted across India, according to the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN).

In a report on forced evictions, the HLRN noted: “The urban and rural poor across India continue to suffer disproportionately from the pandemic and lockdown-induced hardships related to the loss of livelihoods, income, and food. Demolishing their homes under such circumstances has greatly exacerbated their plight and increased their impoverishment.”

“Such inhumane acts of the state violate the Constitution of India and international human rights law ratified by India, which guarantees to all residents of the country the fundamental right to life; the right to an adequate standard of living, that includes the rights to adequate housing and food; the right to health; the right to education; the right to equality; and the right to remedy, including access to justice.”

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