Karnataka: Situation still grim

Published : August 05, 2020 12:40 IST

Avenue Road in Bengaluru after many shops opened with permission from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), on July 28. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa working from his room in Manipala Hospital, Bengaluru, where he was admitted after he tested positive for COVID-19. Photo: HANDOUT

After the good work of controlling the pandemic in the initial months, the administration lost the plot in the last six weeks, resulting in the virus spreading rapidly across the State.

The COVID-19 situation in Karnataka continues to remain grim with approximately 5,000 new cases being reported every day over the past two weeks. The tentacles of the deadly virus have even wreaked havoc in Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the Legislative Assembly, with both Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa and Leader of Opposition Siddaramaiah testing positive for the virus. Three Cabinet Ministers and six legislators have also tested positive so far in the State.

In a quirky twist of fate, Yediyurappa fell prey to the virus a few days after he stated that people in the State "have to learn to live with COVID". He made this pronouncement at a press conference where he also announced that there would be no more lockdowns. Till the end of July, Karnataka was completely shut down every Sunday and a strict curfew was also imposed from 8 p.m., but these restrictions were lifted from the beginning of August.

Since the detection of the first case in the State on March 3, the cumulative number of cases August 4 has risen to 1,45,830, with 73,846 active cases. The number of deaths is 2,704. Karnataka had a good system in place in the early months of the pandemic when it was lauded for its effective reliance on the five Ts — tracing, testing, tracking, treatment and technology — to restrict the spread of the pandemic, but it lost the plot over the last six weeks with the result that the virus has spread rapidly all over the State. With this spike, Karnataka now has the fourth highest number of cases in the country after Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The month of July was especially bad when 1,08,873 cases were detected. Of these, Bengaluru saw 55,544 cases and 1,029 deaths. Over the past two weeks, Bengaluru has reported more than 2,000 new cases every day. Apart from this, the north Karnataka districts have reported more than 17,000 cases so far. The public health infrastructure in these districts is poorer compared with that in south and coastal Karnataka, and many deaths that took place here could have been prevented if the patients had early access to ventilators. In a shocking video that emerged on July 19, pigs could be seen roaming freely inside the district government hospital of Kalaburagi, the divisional headquarters of the Kalyana Karnataka division.

The Department of Health and Family Welfare, which used to provide daily data on new cases, has stopped providing this information. Regarding this development, a source in the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) said, "It is futile to trace the source of the infection at this point as it is a waste of resources and anyway, the infection is so widespread now."

One of the reasons why Karnataka is reporting this spike could be because the number of samples being tested has increased significantly. Almost 15 lakh samples have been tested in the State so far, with the majority being done by the RT-PCR method. Commenting on this, Dr Srinivas Kakkilaya, a physician based in Mangaluru who is involved in issues of public health, said, "Whether we test or don’t test, the virus has already spread widely in the population. The real figure may be 50 or 100 times what is being reported. We all have to understand this and be ready to face a situation where in the next four months, 20 per cent of the State’s population is going to be infected." In such a situation, Dr Kakkilaya added that the focus now needs to be on ramping up critical care facilities, in which the government has failed miserably so far, and the provision of mobile units which can reach the homes of seriously ill patients quickly.

The tussle between private hospitals and the government also continues, with some private establishments in Bengaluru being pulled up for not providing adequate number of beds to patients referred by the BBMP. According to prescribed rules, private hospitals that have been identified for COVID-19 treatment have to reserve 50 per cent of their beds for patients referred by government health departments. Mohammad Mohsin, a senior Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer who is one the nodal officers for facilitating the admission of patients referred by BBMP to private hospitals, said, "The problem is that private hospitals are underreporting the number of beds at their disposal. A prominent hospital that falls under my jurisdiction (a total of six hospitals with around 1,000 beds fall under Mohsin’s jurisdiction) claimed to have a total of only 236 beds contrary to the 300 that we know from our data. Even if we accept this figure, this means that the hospital has to provide 118 beds to us but they come up with some excuse to deny even this when the referred patient goes to the hospital."

Mohsin also narrated another incident regarding Vikram Hospital, another prominent private hospital in the city. "They were charging Rs.5,500 to conduct a COVID test via the CB-NAAT technique whereas the government has capped testing at Rs.3,000." After Mohsin’s intervention, the excess amount collected was refunded to the patients.

While Health Minister B. Sriramulu and Health Education Minister Dr K. Sudhakar, who often speak to the media on the COVID-19 situation, maintain that the situation is under control, the reality is quite different as cases continue to increase rapidly. In such a scenario, the fact that Yediyurappa and Siddaramaiah, the two most senior politicians in the State, have chosen to get themselves admitted to Manipal Hospital, which is a prominent private hospital in Bengaluru, is also being criticised by health activists.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health doctor and researcher said, "What is the message that they are sending to the people? It is clear that they don’t have faith in the public health infrastructure and that there is a serious gap between the quality of health services provided by government and private hospitals. This is also reflected in the budgetary allocations to government health departments and reinforces the idea that private hospitals are more important."