Kamaraj Road in R.A. Puram in Chennai is literally a stone’s throw from Greenways Road, which houses the residences of the Chief Minister and other Ministers. Along the road are the houses of judges of the Madras High Court.
Almost every day in the second week of October, a meeting hall on R.A. Puram has had a birthday, an anniversary or some celebration or the other. Generally, guests pay scant attention to maintaining physical distancing, wearing masks or following any other steps made mandatory to prevent the spread of COVID -19 infection.
Before it opened up nearly all establishments in the latest phase of “unlock”, the State government had said strict action would be taken against anyone violating these precautions and fines imposed on them . However, as seen from the scenes at this hall and elsewhere, it is clear that the implementation of the norms has been lax. Greenways Road teems with policemen from various branches of the State police round the clock. The police are aware of the marriage hall in the locality, and have, at times, even ensured that there are no traffic snarls there.
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If that is the case about the enforcement of restrictions in the heart of Chennai, barely a kilometre from the Chief Minister’s residence, it is also equally true that people have not cared to follow any of the instructions. A few of them, who this correspondent spoke to casually, said they were aware of COVID and associated problems; one even said that he already had contracted the virus and he was over it. “It won’t affect me again.”
With puja and Diwali celebrations just round the corner, J. Radhakrishnan, State Health Secretary, has appealed to people to take precautions and exercise adequate caution while shopping and celebrating. But the serpentine queues in places of worship, the crowd that is flocking to some shops, and the number of vehicles on the road make it appear that people are not taking the advice seriously.
The lack of awareness and the general push to bury COVID in the news cycle are all too visible across Tamil Nadu despite the number of infections and the death of prominent people from many walks of life, including H. Vasanthakumar, a Member of Parliament,; J. Anbazhagan, a member of the Legislative Assembly; and the versatile playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. Several Ministers and MLAs had contracted the disease and are now out of it. P. Vetrivel, a prominent member of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, who was admitted to hospital recently, was shifted to ventilator support two days after admission.
Even though the number of COVID deaths, as recorded officially, has gone beyond 10,000 in Tamil Nadu, the news relating to the disease has been relegated to the inside pages of most newspapers. On Tamil news television, the daily briefings are not prominent; they gets only a few minutes and there is almost no analysis. The accent, even in these few minutes, is on the number of people who have recovered and not on the overall COVID situation in the State.
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COVID is no longer an issue that anyone in the government wants to discuss; the State seems to be more keen on selling itself as an investment destination for foreign companies. As the 2021 Legislative Assembly election nears, the government is seen to be in a tearing hurry to execute pending works and sanction new projects to be taken up on a war footing. “People do not think the government handled COVID badly,” said a government source. “It is there all over the world, and they see that even the advanced nations are still struggling,” the source, who is privy to a study on the state of mind of the voter, said.
The numbers problem
Meanwhile, it is difficult to explain the statistics that the government has been putting out. The number of new infections per day has been steady for too long, and on October 12, it fell below the 5,000 threshold for the second time–after over 80 days. In the first 12 days of October, the total number of new infections, even as economic activities have opened up, remained unbelievably steady day after day. From October 1 to 12, the daily count has been: 5,015; 5,242; 5,185; 5,088; 5,447; 5,017; 5,395; 5,489; 5,622; 5,595; 5,688 and 4,879. One possible reason for the drop below 5,000 on the last day is that the government has reduced testing by about 10,000. According to officials who routinely handle data, this flattening of the pandemic curve, between 5,000 and 6,000 cases a day, that too for such a prolonged period of time, is suspicious to say the least..
The first case of coronavirus infection in the State was detected in Chennai in March. Then, there were 124 infections. The general lethargy of the Health Ministry in contact tracing and isolating the patients led to a 17-fold jump in cases in just a month (April) to 2,199. The very next month, despite the nationwide lockdown and harsh restrictions in place, the number of cases galloped to 20,010. It then grew over threefold the next month, June, to 67,834, despite indifferent testing levels. Even as the State failed to realise the seriousness of the infection and its spread, the numbers rose to 1,55,692 in July and to 1,82,182 in August. In September, for the first time since the pandemic became a reality in Tamil Nadu, the total number of new infections dropped to 1,69, 531.