COVID-19 Update

Maharashtra: Road to recovery

Print edition : September 11, 2020

A sanitation worker sprays disinfectant in a mall in Kurla on July 30. Malls in the State reopened to the public on August 5. Photo: Emmanual Yogini

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray interacts with senior officials at the COVID-19 review meeting, in Pune on July 30. Photo: PTI

There are signs of recovery in the State and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s decision to lift the lockdown restrictions in stages and not do things in a hurry seems to be validated.

On Independence Day, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray made a bold promise to rid the State of the coronavirus. Large advertisements in mainstream newspapers declared: “Our Independence Day Resolve! Corona-free Maharashtra!”

While the State has done a relatively good job of keeping the virus in check, as much as a pandemic can be kept in check, the declaration was seen as rash by some. A Health Department official said it could have been worded differently and “without making a promise that was really not in our hands”. A Congress functionary said Uddhav Thackeray has “handed them a stick to beat” him with, referring to the “unnecessary handle” the advertisement gave the opposition. The advertisement apart, general public opinion is in favour of the State’s handling of the virus so far.

A Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officer who has been involved with planning the line of attack against the virus right from the start says: “This virus is here to stay. We will have to learn to live with it. The proverb ‘If you live by the water, make friends with the crocodile’ is relevant right now. That is our situation. We cannot stay in lockdown. We cannot open up totally. So, we advise people to live with caution.”

That has been Uddhav Thackeray’s line throughout. On August 16, he held a virtual interaction with Dr Rahul Pandit and Dr Shashank Joshi of the COVID-19 task force and said the process of lifting the lockdown in the State would be gradual. He said the threat of COVID persisted. “It is more important how to lift the lockdown than when to come out of it. Those who did it hurriedly had to impose it again. I don’t want a second wave of the virus in the State,” he said. “The second wave comes when we pat ourselves on the back for having controlled the coronavirus and become complacent.” Officially, some parts of the State remain under lockdown, which is expected to be fully lifted on August 31.

While the reopening of schools has become a much-discussed matter, Thackeray is firm on keeping them closed. In his virtual meeting with the COVID-19 task force, he said he knew that the poor were missing out on education because of lack of access to the online world, but he noted that it was better than subjecting children to the possibility of getting infected by sending them to school.

The decision is supported by data collected by Maharashtra’s Public Health Department. The data show that people below the age of 20 account for 11 per cent of the total cases of infection in the State though only 0.5 per cent of those who died were aged 18 or less. The State had 23,995 cases under the age of 10 and 42,529 in the 11-20 age group. Another reason to keep children out of schools is that they could become carriers of the virus and infect the elderly at home.

Thackeray’s one-step-at-a-time approach seems to be a judicious one. A bureaucrat who was part of the COVID-19 task force at the peak of the crisis but now holds another post says Uddhav Thackeray had to resist “huge pressure” to do things faster. “Fortunately, he took the counsel of doctors, some bureaucrats and his own understanding of the situation. It did not make him popular for a while because public opinion was built up against him by the opposition, and a section of the media was also critical, but I think most people now value the decisions taken earlier,” he says.

Maharashtra and Mumbai seem to be on the road to recovery. A heat map prepared by the Department of Economic Affairs in the Union Finance Ministry bears this out. The map correlated electricity consumption, e-way billing and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) work creation in May and June with renewal of economic growth of States across the country. It found that States with good control over the virus had better economic recovery. Out of the three indicators, Maharashtra had the highest scores in all except MGNREGA work creation.

There are signs of recovery all around. Civic hospitals are now beginning to shift their focus to other ailments that were neglected during the corona crisis. Two of Mumbai’s premier public hospitals, the King Edward Memorial Hospital and BYL Nair Hospital, have opened non-Covid out-patient departments (OPD). The patient count is around 20 cases a day because of obvious apprehensions, but hospital authorities believe it will soon be back to the usual 200-plus OPD cases a day. There are delays in elective surgical procedures because doctors of public hospital are almost fully on COVID duty. In another step towards restoring normalcy, inter-district bus travel will commence soon after five months of closure. So far travel has been permitted only with special passes.

The mood in Mumbai, the State’s economic powerhouse, is definitely positive. The restarting of commercial activity brings some hope of economic stability. Empty shop premises and torn-down signboards where rentals had become unaffordable are reminders of the economic disorder, but these, it is hoped, are things of the past.

The Ganpati festival, traditionally a time of big spending in Maharashtra, will be a subdued affair this time, but the very fact that it is being celebrated is a sign of recovery. The government has issued directions for the celebrations, which include home visarjan (immersion) of small-sized Ganpati idols, no large processions and no public Ganpati pandals. A novel book-your-time-slot for immersion scheme has been created by civic wards across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach received 1,550 applications in the first two days of the scheme.

Support for this subdued celebration comes from the large Ganpati mandals, who have deferred celebrations. One concession has been made though: permitting people to travel to their homes in the Konkan, where the festival is a big occasion. As many as 162 Ganpati special trains have been sanctioned, but, surprisingly, the passenger strength has been a low 20 per cent. This is attributed to a fear of travel and the possibility that most people had left for their home towns months ago.

The final indicator of normalcy in Mumbai will come, of course, when the local train service can be accessed by all and not just those with essential services passes. Officials say that will take some time. But Mumbaikars, by and large, believe that the worst is over.

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