COVID-19 Update

Maharashtra: Opening up slowly

Print edition : September 25, 2020

A mall in Thane being sanitised on September 2 ahead of reopening, after the authorities eased some restrictions as part of Unlock 4. Photo: PTI

Health workers arriving in Mumbai’s Dharavi locality to screen people for COVID-19 symptoms on August 15. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

In a bid to prevent a second wave of infection, the Thackeray government proceeds with caution in easing lockdown restrictions.

When Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced in August that the lockdown would not be lifted fully in Maharashtra, he was reiterating the State’s by-now-well-established policy of taking it slow when it came to easing lockdown restrictions. In Maharashtra’s ‘Mission Begin Again’ phase 4, the lockdown will continue to be in place for the whole of September. The decision is based on what is largely seen to be a successful plan to combat the pandemic.

The thinking at Mantralaya, the State’s administrative headquarters, is that it is better to proceed slowly rather than impose a second lockdown. Thackeray spelt out his government’s strategy on August 27 after inaugurating a jumbo COVID-19 facility in Pune. He said: “If we relax and believe that the virus will now be under control, we might have to face the second wave. Those countries which believed that ‘abhi ho gaya, humne maat kar di’ (we have defeated the pandemic) were all proved wrong as they saw a second wave.” Besides, he said, the belief that a person who has tested positive will not be infected again has been proved wrong. “We should not relax and become complacent.”

He added: “There is no medicine, no vaccine yet. But that does not mean we can’t continue our fight. We need to keep fighting… We need to remain alert and keep chasing the virus in a bid to check its spread.”

He pointed out that even after a vaccine is available, “we will not be able to give it to the people at one go. Maharashtra has a population of 12 crore. It will take time to vaccinate such a large population. Besides, we don’t know how long the effect of the vaccine will last. Maintain social distance, use masks and wash hands frequently—these should remain our daily priorities.”

Sense of normalcy

Apart from the containment zones, where stringent rules still apply, there is largely a sense of normalcy in the State, especially in Mumbai. Hotels can operate at 100 per cent capacity, private offices are allowed to function with 30 per cent of staff, and private bus operators can resume services. Educational institutions will continue to be closed, but senior pupils can visit their schools sometimes if they feel the need to interact with their teachers.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of the pandemic receding in Mumbai is the shutting down of the big COVID facilities. Municipal and State authorities said the jumbo facilities were no longer needed and would be dismantled. The only restrictions that still pinch are the curbs on public transport. In Mumbai, the public bus service and the local train service are the city’s lifelines. And access to both remains severely limited. Travel in the rest of the State has opened up with the government doing away with the mandatory e-pass for inter-district travel. However, it is highly unlikely that public transport in Mumbai would be freely available any time soon, given the government’s fear of a second wave of infections. Thackeray has repeatedly said that he will not be pushed to open up the city only to have it closed down again.

Rise in districts

While Mumbai, the erstwhile COVID-19 capital, is improving, the number of affected people in other parts of the State is increasing. This is broadly attributed to a rise in travel and increased testing and was an expected outcome once the initial restrictions were relaxed. However, it is worrying for the authorities as managing COVID cases in areas outside the metros will be a challenge.

To prevent a second wave, the State advised district authorities to use their discretion in imposing restrictions. In Chandrapur district, for instance, 270 people tested positive on August 31, adding to the existing total of 2,344 patients. The district administration took strong action, announcing a week-long complete district lockdown beginning September 3, during which even shops with essential commodities were shut and no one was allowed to step outdoors except for medical services. August 31 saw high numbers in Nashik district, too, with 958 people testing positive, taking the caseload to 34,046.

The number of cases has been rising in Pune district. On August 31, 3,611 cases were reported, taking the total district count to 1,60,455. Civic data from the Pune Municipal Corporation showed that 25 per cent of the positive cases and 72 per cent of those who died were cases with co-morbidities. The authorities are focusing more on such cases. The data showed that from July 7 to August 26, 3,57,270 patients with comorbidities were screened. In their door-to-door testing, civic staff have been focusing on screening people over 60 with co-morbidities.

Neglect of other issues

The State’s focus on COVID care over the last five months has been to the detriment of all other health issues. A five-month comparative analysis of data compiled by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the State public health department between March and July in 2019 and 2020 showed that immunisation dropped by 60 per cent this year, while cataract surgeries fell by 92.8 per cent. Other elective procedures such as tubal ligation and vasectomies also dropped drastically by 70 per cent, while there was a decline in institutional deliveries and neonatal intensive care.

Opening up the State has resulted in a fresh look at issues that were put on the back burner. At the top of the State’s to-do list is resolving the issue of outstanding Goods and Services Tax (GST) payments by the Centre.

The first coronavirus case in Maharashtra was detected on March 9. By the end of March, all government hospitals had been converted into COVID facilities. As of August 27, the State had recorded over seven lakh cases and 23,000 deaths.