Tamil Nadu: Ups and downs

Print edition : September 11, 2020

At the Kasimedu fishing harbour on August 1. Despite police presence, huge crowds thronged the area, with total disregard to physical distancing. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Traders in Chennai’s Flower Bazaar gave umbrellas to customers to help them maintain physical distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19, on July 28. Photo: R. Ragu

With more than 6,000 deaths, including those of doctors and paramedical personnel, and 50,000-plus active infections so far, Tamil Nadu’s battle against COVID-19 is floundering.

Even as sections of the media highlight the brighter side of the situation, such as a very high recovery rate (over 80 per cent) a low death rate, and a high level of testing resulting in detection of a large number of infections, lost in the statistics are the facts that matter: lives are being lost and the fight is still a government-only show. The people of the State appear to be resigned to the new reality, fatigued by the long-drawn-out fight, and are going about their daily lives unconcerned about COVID-19. Mask-wearing is mandatory but in every street, in every shop, one can see people without masks and not maintaining the required physical distance.

All along, the fight against the pandemic has been patchy, at best. Every week there is a new controversy or a new problem. When the pandemic began in March, it was the problem of not being able to get PCR tests done. Then came the artificially created problem of lack of beds in hospitals, and the lack of adequate personnel to run the hospitals.

Even COVID-19 deaths became controversial, with the Health Ministry initially denying any discrepancy in the calculation of deaths and then accepting that there was a mistake. In early August, the State government announced a small number of deaths of doctors but the Indian Medical Association (IMA) put out twice that number. The government refused to investigate the issue, maintaining that the IMA’s numbers were incorrect. It also got the State IMA president to issue a statement.

However, media reports said that the government was not speaking the truth. The medical wing of the main opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), claimed that as many as 39 medical personnel had died, and it released the names of those reportedly dead.

Dr Poongothai Aladi Aruna, an opposition MLA, said: “The IMA had released the names, addresses and IMA branch details of the doctors who died from battling COVID. If the government wanted, it could have verified each of the names and put out the facts in just an hour. It chose not to do so. Why?”

Even as this controversy was raging, people who were confined to the districts because of the lockdown were getting more and more restless. They were unable to undertake inter-district travel. Media reports alleged that the e-pass system, which was introduced to restrict the movement of people, was being misused by middlemen.

On the ground, regulating people’s inter-district movement with the e-pass was proving to be counterproductive in that there were allegations of harassment of people who had to travel for genuine reasons. Nor did it help in the spread of infection.

S.P. Lakshmanan, a journalist, said: “Someone I know lost his mother in Tirunelveli the other day. He was in Chennai. He applied for an e-pass soon after he got the news around midnight, and waited for 10 hours because the official would only look at the application at 10 a.m. the next day. The next day he received a response that his application was rejected.” He added that there were many such instances.

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami weighed in on the issue on August 6, stating that the e-pass system for inter-district travel was essential because it would curtail unnecessary movement of people. Just a week later, he changed his stand on the issue.

The DMK and the Bharatiya Janata Party demanded that the e-pass system be revoked, but the government refused to accept the demand. However, it eased the process of issuing e-passes in mid-August. Just two days later, as many as 13,853 persons were granted e-passes to travel, according to government data.

Some 1.27 lakh people from the districts entered Chennai from August 1 to 18.

With more people entering Chennai, the number of cases is expected to rise. The city had already recorded a slight spike in cases since August 14. Since then, the daily number of cases has remained above 1,000. Until August 19, 1.2 lakh people in Chennai had tested positive, while the total for the State was 3.55 lakh.

The Statewide count has also not shown any sign of decreasing. In March there were only 124 cases. This rose to 2,199 in April, 20,010 in May, 67,834 in June, and 1,55,692 in July. In the first 19 days of August, as many as 1,09,590 tested positive.