COVID-19 Update

Tamil Nadu: Fears of a second wave

Print edition : September 25, 2020

Commuters in a bus at Gandhipuram Mofussil Bus Terminus, Coimbatore, on September 1. Photo: M. Periasamy

Devotees being checked with thermal scanner and sanitised before entering a temple in Salem on September 1. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

The level of infection in the State is still high but with more establishments and businesses opening up in Unlock 4.0, the situation is likely to go out of control.

Tamil Nadu is bracing for a second wave of COVID-19 infections because many more services and establishments have been opened up even though the first wave shows no signs of abating. Since the pandemic outbreak in March, more than 7,600 deaths have been recorded in the State. The number of new cases remains high, just short of 6,000 a day, which means that the first wave is still strong in the State.

A sero-prevalence study in Chennai indicated that as much as 20 per cent of the city’s population, which accounts for one-eighth of the State’s total population, could be infected. Anecdotal evidence, too, points to a massive jump in infection rates. In the past two days alone, 60 COVID positive cases were detected in an old-age home on the southern outskirts of Chennai. In a Facebook post, which has been independently confirmed, the organisation running it said that the infected women were taken to three government hospitals.

Many prominent persons are in hospital. S.P. Balasubramaniam, whose melodious voice has enthralled many generations of Indians, is fighting for life at a private hospital. He is on the support of a ventilator and an extra corporeal membrane oxygenation machine (ECMO) . The first Member of Parliament to fall victim to COVID infection is from Tamil Nadu—H.Vasanthakumar, a Congress MP from Kanyakumari and a businessman. He breathed his last on August 28. In fact, on March 20, speaking in the Lok Sabha, Vasanthakumar demanded that COVID-19 be declared a national disaster. He even laid a road map to help small businesses, migrant labourers and those on daily wages, only to be laughed at and interrupted by members from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

As many as 33 MLAs are undergoing treatment for COVID. So are a few prominent members of society. Even the Governor was infected, and was advised home isolation. Even though the level of infection in the population is quite high, the State government maintains that the pandemic is still not in the community transmission stage.

But these dire signs have not prevented the State from blindly following the Centre’s lead and opening up more establishments. Even places of worship are open. The only exception is cinema theatres. The Chennai Metro, which lacks a way of purifying air, is open from September 7. It appears more than a little strange that some establishments, such as cinema theatres which can actually ensure air purification, have been locked up but others which cannot do so are allowed to function. It is ironical that malls can function but theatres inside these malls cannot function. One argument advanced by some in the ruling party is that sitting in a theatre for about two hours is more dangerous than travelling for 10 minutes in a Metro train or visiting a mall for half an hour. The counter argument to this is that COVID-19 does not depend on the length of exposure; the infection can be picked up in a matter of minutes if there is a COVID-19 positive person present in the premises.

Inter-district buses are also allowed to ply from September 7. Almost all areas of economic activity that have the potential to contribute to the spread of the virus have been opened up. In most other countries, the relaxation of lockdown conditions was done only after the infection was under control. In India, it is happening even as the country is witnessing world-record-shattering daily infection rates. Parliament has been summoned; the Tamil Nadu State Assembly, too, will meet, but in a large auditorium though. Despite the large number of deaths and the rising infections, the government has mandated that people live with the virus.

One public health expert warned that a second wave will stretch the health-care system to unsustainable levels. But no one seems to be taking note of such warnings. The State government has said that it did not have much manoeuvrability after the Government of India had laid out the rules for Unlock 4.0.

Added to all this is the spin that the Health Minister C.Vijayabhaskar, himself a doctor, dishes out every day. He has found a great way of conveying to the people that the number of COVID deaths is low and that they occur because of other reasons. He has caught on to co-morbidities—other co-existing health conditions—and has claimed from the beginning that people were dying in large numbers because of these co-morbidities and not because of COVID-19. “This is ridiculous,” said a doctor. “The co-morbidities have existed for quite a while in most patients and they have lived so far, right? So why are some dying now? Is it because of the co-morbidities or because of COVID-19? In my view, it is because of COVID,” he said.

“The Health Minister saying that people die mostly because of co-morbidities and only a few die of COVID is misleading,” said another senior doctor. “The WHO [World Health Organisation] definition of COVID death is very clear. People don’t die of co-morbidities. They die of COVID-19 and co-morbidities increase the risk. There is no such thing called primary or secondary COVID death. This is the Health Minister’s invention,” he said.

Nevertheless, the daily bulletin issued by the Health Department gives the numbers of victims of COVID-only and victims of “co-morbidities” separately. But the Minister’s media management does not work on the ground when it comes to COVID control. In south India, Tamil Nadu has the highest number of infections, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Ruling party spokespersons routinely dismiss this fact by saying that Tamil Nadu is conducting more tests, forgetting that it is the responsibility of governments to conduct such tests and save more people from getting infected. But with an election to fight in early 2021, the accent is more on spinning media narratives around the pandemic so as to create the impression that the government is handling the situation well.

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