Covid update

Tamil Nadu: Post-election curbs

Print edition : May 07, 2021

A crowded market at Pallavaram, Chennai, on April 16. Photo: Velankanni Raj B

Infections rise in Tamil Nadu as a rudderless State government struggles to contain new COVID cases, while Puducherry fears a lockdown disrupting tourism.

On April 14, Tamil New Year, hundreds of people, mostly young and middle-aged men, gathered near a phone and accessory store that was being inaugurated, in the south Tamil Nadu town of Tirunelveli. They were there for a glimpse of the chief guest for the occasion, a regional television soap opera star!

The police were under instructions to ensure that no crowding took place anywhere, including places of worship, markets, malls, parks and playgrounds. The force, stretched to its limits, tried to cope when the inauguration took place. When repeated appeals to disperse the crowd failed, the police resorted to force. The shop was ordered shut and sealed by the police, and the district authorities were contemplating the next course of action. A lower-level police staff from the district said: “People have no sense of responsibility. When the whole country is trying to fight the pandemic these people are putting themselves and everyone else at risk.”

However, local residents took to social media and, while not condoning the incident, asked how fair it was to stop the inauguration when all political rallies in the town went ahead as scheduled until April 4 when the campaign for the Assembly election ended. A local businessman, who did not want to be named, said: “Every leader from every party was here. There were huge crowds. Why do they have one rule, while we have to follow a different set of rules?”

The debate was raging just as Tamil Nadu went past a worrying milestone: the State recorded 7,819 new cases on April 14, an all-time high, since the first case was reported in the country in January 2020. The highest number of cases in the State before this was 6,993, recorded on July 27, 2020.

Sridhar, a technology and data expert who has kept tabs on COVID statistics since early 2020, noted in a tweet: “City after city, state after state are crossing 1st wave highs just like that (Tamilnadu, which “managed” below 7k [in 2020], jumped straight to 7.8k).”

As many as 25 people died in Tamil Nadu on the same day, taking the total number of deaths in the State to nearly 13,000 (12,970 deaths as on April 14).

Across Tamil Nadu, the police have been engaged in awareness drives and implementing the mask mandate. From April 8, when the mask mandate began, to April 13, the police registered over 2.2 lakh cases of violation, according to a release from the Tamil Nadu Police headquarters. South Zone, where Tirunelveli is located, logged the highest number of cases registered, 74,815, during this period.

J. Radhakrishnan, the State’s Health Secretary, appealed to workplaces and businesses to implement work-from-home because of the new wave of infections. The bright side was that the State had created enough infrastructure and that the State had enough vaccines. “The next two weeks are very important for Tamil Nadu,” Radhakrishnan said. Medical practitioners in the State said Tamil Nadu could have better controlled the second wave if it had taken lessons from the first wave.

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, awaiting the people’s verdict after the April 6 election, ordered a series of measures to curtail the spread of the virus. This included reducing seating in restaurants and movies to 50 per cent and bringing back some of the lockdown-period restrictions without declaring an actual lockdown. Going by the implementation of the restrictions, it is clear that officials are running the show, and is likely to remain so at least until the declaration of the results on May 2.

M.K. Stalin, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president and Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, said that because of the massive spike in COVID positive cases in the second wave, the Prime Minister should take the stand that everyone should be vaccinated, instead of restricting the vaccinations to age-specific groups. The need of the hour was to vaccinate as many people as possible, he said.

The scene in Puducherry

In the Union Territory of Puducherry, the number of new cases on April 14 stood at 476 (Puducherry 333, Karaikkal 104, Yanam 32 and Mahe 7), with two deaths (as many as 4,376 persons were tested.)

Businesses in Puducherry were more worried over the increase in COVID cases in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the two catchments from where weekend tourists flock to the leisure town. Like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Puducherry has a robust public health system, and people prefer government hospitals—including the reputed Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research—to private medical colleges.

The new Lieutenant Governor, Tamilisai Soundararajan, who is in charge of refurbishing the image of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Union Territory, said that she had managed to source 1,000 doses of Remdesivir from Telangana, where she is Governor, and made it available to Puducherry to treat COVID patients. Remdesivir is in short supply across the country, going by reports from the hotspots.

In a tweet posted at 7.43 p.m. on April 13, she said: “Very glad to handover the vials of Remdesivir, brought in from Telangana state as a goodwill gesture to Puducherry health department.” The Puducherry media celebrated her achievement, with pictures of her at the Puducherry airport near two packed boxes containing the vials.

The Union Territory’s Health Department has directed private medical college hospitals to set aside 300 beds each for COVID-19 patients.

Tamilisai Soundararajan was also pivoting the vaccination campaign launched by the Prime Minister from April 11 to 14. This campaign, named by the Prime Minister as “Tika Utsav”, would be extended in the Union Territory by four days, she told presspersons on April 13.

Reasons for the surge

Asked if there was a specific reason for the sudden spurt in cases since April, Rijo M. John, professor and health economist, Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, Kochi, said that it was hard to pinpoint one factor as the most dominant. “The new fast-spreading variant of the virus is indeed found in many parts of India now. However, it is not clear that alone is the reason behind the current spread,” he told Frontline.

One reason was the elections. Said Rijo John: “Elections concluded in five States, and all those States witnessed massive disrespect for COVID protocols. Also, our vaccination pace has been less than ideal for a population of our size. Even after 85 days into the vaccination drive, the percentage of people vaccinated with at least one dose remains around 7 per cent, which is far below the percentage in several other countries in the world. That percentage is particularly low in the most populous States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Even in Maharashtra, which accounts for a third of the new cases, the vaccination rate is very low. Tamil Nadu has only vaccinated around 4.2 per cent of the population with at least one dose.”

How people behave is another reason for the rise in the number of cases. “There is a major disregard for masking, social distancing, etc., among the general public which is also contributing to rising cases. During the first wave, the country was under a very strict lockdown and that indeed reduced the rate of rise in cases, albeit at a high cost on the country and immense human misery. Such a lockdown is not in place at the moment and that by default means a faster growth in the number of cases,” he added.