Covid-19 update

Delhi: Pandemic politics

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (right) along with Health Minister Satyendra Jain (left) inaugurating a 200-bedded hospital for COVID patients at Ambedkar Nagar in New Delhi on August 9. Photo: PTI

Both the Central and State governments are claiming credit for the “Delhi model” which contained the rate of infection in the capital, but there is still a long way to go.

Public celebrations in the national capital on August 15 this year were muted owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Desperate to get back to normal life after the fatigue induced by the lockdown of three months, some people welcomed Independence Day with gusto on their terraces, flying kites and socialising with family and friends.

But Delhi should not get complacent, warned Dr Srinivas Rajkumar T of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi. “We are in a better situation than before, since mid-July. Now there are around 1,000 cases consistently every day. This will continue. But infection will spread through new demographic shifts, when people go to office and malls or resume social activities, or when the elderly get exposed, which will lead to isolated spikes,” he told Frontline.

The AIIMS administration had sent the senior resident doctor in the department of psychiatry a show-cause notice after he criticised in a tweet the substandard quality of the personal protective equipment (PPE) provided to AIIMS health-care workers. “If you can prove my tweet wrong, I will accept I am wrong, but it has been two months and there has been no response from the hospital,” Dr Srinivas said, adding that the show-cause notice was aimed at intimidating him into silence.

Around 200 doctors, nurses, guards and sanitation workers at the AIIMS had tested positive for COVID-19, he said. While the quality of the masks and PPEs had improved incrementally after the staff went public with the shortcomings, there was still no concrete change in the way the outpatient department or other departments of the hospital functioned, he said.

In June, the Delhi government predicted that coronavirus cases in Delhi would touch 5.5 lakh by July end. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia then warned that the city would need 80,000 hospital beds to accommodate all the patients. But the prediction went wrong.

‘A long way to go’

By August 17, Delhi had recorded a total of 1,52,580 cases, which in itself is an alarming number, but far short of the prediction. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the COVID situation in the city was much better now, but there was still a long way to go.

Delivering his Independence Day speech at the Delhi Secretariat, he attributed the decreasing COVID numbers to the Central government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and thanked them for their collective efforts.

In a competitive bid to politicise the pandemic, both the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rules Delhi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which holds power at the Centre, touted the “Delhi model” as exemplary and took credit for it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that other States follow the “Delhi model” in the fight against the virus.

In June, as the numbers in the capital rose at an alarming rate, Union Home Minister Amit Shah chaired a meeting with Delhi government representatives and the Lieutenant Governor to chalk out a plan to contain the pandemic. Shortly after the meeting, Delhi’s Health Minister Satyender Jain tested positive for COVID-19 and over a month later Amit Shah, too, tested positive.

After the first COVID case was detected in Delhi in March, it emerged as a national hotspot, exporting infection to other States. June saw the highest surge in COVID-19 cases, with the daily count reaching 4,000 on June 23. The number of casualties was also the highest in that month as was the extent of shortage of hospital beds and testing kits. The unprecedented health crisis forced the BJP and AAP governments to work together.

Since then, the number of new cases has steadily declined and remained below 1,500 in the past month. Health-care workers said Delhi had managed to bring down the number of daily infections even if it had not yet tamed the virus.

See-sawing graph

Delhi’s COVID-19 graph see-sawed in mid-August after dipping consistently for a month. But Kejriwal maintained that the positivity rate and the death rate had decreased in Delhi even as the recovery rate increased. By August 16, the recovery rate was 90 per cent, which the government iterated to prove the improvement in conditions.

However, the recovery rate was not a good measure of infection spread as it was bound to go up as a function of time and gave a false sense of improvement, said Dr Srinivas. While the infection rate seemed to have fallen in Delhi, the actual numbers were far higher than what was recorded, not because of the failure of the government or science but because of people’s behaviour, he said. Only people with serious illnesses were going to hospitals. Asymptomatic patients or the ones with mild symptoms were stayed at home, he said.

Besides, antigen tests had largely replaced RT-PCR (Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) tests, despite the Delhi High Court stating that antigen tests should supplement and not substitute RT-PCR tests as they were more reliable. Not everyone had an antibody response, so sometimes the infection could get missed in an antigen test, said Dr Srinivas. Of 100 infected persons, only 60-80 per cent would have an antibody response, he explained. Until mid-August, as many as 13,02,120 tests had been conducted in Delhi.

The total number of containment zones in Delhi until August 15 stood at 538. On July 27, the number was 715, but in just four days the zones were scaled down to 496 after Kejriwal expressed concern over the large number of zones. He hedged his claims over the improving situation and advised people to remain vigilant as the coronavirus was unpredictable and there was considerable uncertainty over what might happen.

“If the situation goes out of control again, the Delhi government is fully prepared to deal with it,” he said while inaugurating a 200-bed hospital for COVID patients on August 9. This was the second hospital that was inaugurated during the pandemic. But schools would not be reopened until the circumstances were conducive to that, he said.