COVID-19 Update

Karnataka: Terrible transition

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Fire service personnel spraying disinfectant at KSRTC Kempegowda bus stand in Bengaluru on July 19. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa holding a meeting with Cabinet Ministers on COVID issues at his residence in Bengaluru on July 20. Photo: HANDOUT

Karnataka’s initial record in restricting the spread of COVID-19 has been upset by an alarming increase in the cases of infection across the State with Bengaluru emerging as a new national hotspot.

Looking at the horror story that is unfolding in Bengaluru since the beginning of July, it is hard to believe that just over a month ago the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had lauded Karnataka for its management of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter on June 18 to State Health Departments across the country, the Ministry had stated that “two practices followed in the State of Karnataka are worth replicating” and urged other States to “consider these practices for adapting them to their local context”. The practices referred to are “efficient contact tracing” and “comprehensive household survey to detect vulnerable populations”. Karnataka’s early record in restricting the spread of the infection is a shambles now with an alarming increase in the number of new cases across the State and the emergence of Bengaluru, the capital, as the new national hotspot.

The swift deterioration in the management of the situation becomes evident from the State’s COVID-19 dashboard. As on July 20, the cumulative confirmed casesstood at 64,420, active cases at 42,216, and total deaths at 1,403. With the staggering rise in the caseload, Karnataka has the fourth highest number of cases in the country after Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. The number of samples being tested has increased substantially with more than 25,000 samples tested every day.Karnataka has tested 10,57,303 samples so far.

Bengaluru has been reporting 1,200 to 2,000 positive cases daily and 50 to 70 deaths. The city has emerged as the epicentre of the pandemic in the State with a total of 33,229 cases, of which 25,574 were active cases on July 20. Considering that there were only around 10,000 cases in the city in the first week of July, the spurt is worrying. The city has recorded 698 deaths cumulatively, of which 550 took place in the first two weeks of July. The infection was restricted to a few corporation wards of the city in June. Now, all the198 wards have active cases and there are more than 6,000 containment zones. While contact tracing is still yielding results in the districts, health officials of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) have given up tracing the source of the infection for new cases in Bengaluru, implying that there is widespread community transmission.

To compound the problem, the standoff between the Health Department and the Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association (PHANA) in Bengaluru over how many beds private hospitals can spare for COVID patients has led to a scarcity of beds. The shortage is being addressed by recommending private hospitals “to encourage asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic patients to get admitted in COVID Care Centres (CCC) or be in home isolation as per their eligibility and suitability following triage”. Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa bought himself time to sort out the issues by imposing a lockdown in Bengaluru for a week between July 14 and 21. When demands came from various quarters to extend the lockdown in Bengaluru, he was emphatic that “lockdown is not a solution”.

COVID-19 cases started rising dramatically in the city from the last week of June.This has been attributed to the lifting of restrictions on inter- and intra-State travel earlier in June. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had ample time in the first three months of the pandemic, when Karnataka had fewer patients compared with other States of its size, to strengthen its public health infrastructure, it did not act. The severe problem in Bengaluru is the result of this inaction..

The government’s apathy became apparent whenHealth and Family Welfare Minister B. Sriramulu said in a startling statement on July 15: “What can the government do? Only God can save us now.”

He was, however, quick to issue a clarification, but political observers have interpreted this as a sign of the ongoing turf war among senior Ministers. Since the pandemic broke out in March, senior Ministers have been attempting to outsmart one another in hogging the limelight on the management of the situation. Yediyurappa, who completes one year at the helmof the State on July 26, responded to the crisis by shuffling the responsibilities of Sriramulu, Medical Education Minster Dr K. Sudhakar, Revenue Minister R. Ashok and Deputy Chief Minister C.N. Ashwathnarayan in COVID management. The situation in Bengaluru became so serious that Yediyurappa was forced to appoint eight Ministers to oversee the response to the pandemic, with separate teams headed by senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers.

The turf war is affecting the response to the pandemic, as the transfer of BBMP Commissioner B.H. Anil Kumar on July 18 shows. Considering the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases there was a case for Kumar’s transfer, but the appointment of N. Manjunatha Prasad, who holds the concurrent charge of Principal Secretary in the Revenue Department, in his place is said to be have been partly because of petty politics played by the Ministers. Prasad had held the post twice in the past. According to informed sources, Prasad’s choice was influenced by a prominent Minister belonging to the Vokkaliga community who is trying to extend his sway in Bengaluru.

Meanwhile, there have been serious allegations of corruption against the Yediyurappa government. Opposition leader Siddaramaiah launched a campaign on social media with the hashtag #LekkaKodi (Show the Accounts) demanding accountability from the government. He alleged that the quantum of graft ran to more than Rs.2,000 crore and that there were irregularities in the purchase of key equipment such as ventilators and an escalation in the price of food kits supplied to migrant workers and poor families during the lockdown. “While a ventilator has been procured at Rs.4 lakh under the PM Cares Fund, it costs Rs.12-18 lakh a unit in Karnataka. Why is there such a huge difference in the price?” Siddaramaiah asked.

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