Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Photo: PTI.
Chennai: Over a hundred days have passed since the first person in Tamil Nadu tested positive for COVID-19 – and the state’s epidemic is a mess. Chennai has been slipping in and out of a panic. Earlier this month, Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy completely locked down four districts – Chennai, Chengalpattu, Kanchipuram and Thiruvallur – to stem the tide of new coronavirus cases. According to experts, the present situation is the product of a series of goof-ups.
Only three days before the lockdown announcement, the state government was in denial. “We have no plans of lockdown,” Palanisamy had said. But a discussion with some health officials and experts later, his position shifted to the other extreme.
Experts said the new lockdown – from June 19 to June 30 – was prompted by the fact that Chennai had been eased out of the previous lockdown sooner than was reasonable. Even as life returned nearly to normal in Chennai by the last week of May, the number of new cases began to surge.
“We have had five lockdowns, and on June 19, we [entered] a sixth lockdown with equal aggression,” senior journalist R. Mani said. “There was huge political infighting apparently happening in the [health] department – not something desirable, especially during a pandemic.”
In every press briefing, the state health minister Vijaya Baskar has sought to paint a rosy picture. “The Indian Council of Medical Research praises our work but opposition parties are propagandising against our work,” he said. But on June 9 alone, the state reported 460 COVID-19 deaths – and an administrative lapse came to the fore when the Chennai Corporation was found to have recorded 236 more deaths. Rumours have since flown thick and fast that the state might be pressuring hospitals to record deaths due to COVID-19 as being due to the comorbidities alone.
Former health secretary Beela Rajesh denied these allegations but also announced the formation of a committee to probe them. However, she was transferred out within the next few days, and replaced by J. Radhakrishnan, her predecessor. Sources in the government said Rajesh had announced the probe committee without discussing it with the chief minister and the health minister first.
Before her, S. Nagarajan, the director of the Tamil Nadu Health Systems Project, whose mandate includes upgrading the quality of public healthcare in the state, had been transferred out on June 1.
The Chennai Corporation is also in a fix because 277 COVID-19 positive patients are missing. The patients had provided false addresses and phone numbers. The corporation tried to trace them but failed, and has filed a police complaint.
Meanwhile, Chennai continues to record an alarming number of new cases every day. The Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital and the Madras Medical College have become hotspots in their own right, since over a hundred postgraduate students and assistant professors tested positive for COVID-19. In Chennai alone, 150 staff nurses have tested positive in the last few days. A student who had recovered from COVID-19 tested positive again last week.
“Hostel mess and toilets are the main reasons for the high number of cases in Rajiv Gandhi hospital,” a student under treatment said on condition of anonymity. “Ministers praise us in their briefings but it does not translate to action.”
Dr Amalorpavanathan Joseph, a former director of vascular surgery at Madras Medical College, said the rising numbers are a cause for worry. “To control [the outbreak], a lockdown alone won’t help,” he told The Wire Science. “We need to increase testing. The government has started it now. We should also note that health workers continue to be infected. The government must isolate asymptomatic patients, and people must wear masks and follow physical distancing protocols.”
Tamil Nadu has conducted over 7.7 lakh tests in the last three months – the highest among India’s states – but has released only the overall testing data in its daily medical bulletins. After members of opposition parties and journalists raised a clamour over this practice, the health department released district-wise data on June 7.
The uneven testing intensity immediately stood out. For example, Madurai has conducted only 14,000 tests till date, averaging about 250 per day. S. Venkatesan, the Member of Parliament from Madurai and a member of CPI(M), asked the district administration the next day to aggressively ramp up testing.
“The district administration increased testing to up to 1,000 per day but it’s still not enough,” Venkatesan told The Wire. “I have petitioned the government to conduct 3,000 tests per day. They have not been able to do it. We have a good public health system but without proper guidelines from the state government, the district administration is not able to do much. They are clearly struggling to handle this pandemic.”
Even sources in the administration said their strategy had always been limited by the state government’s protocol and criteria. “If we do more tests, we are being asked questions,” one person familiar with the matter said.
And they may indeed need to test more. Even as Chennai’s case load continues to rise, more people are leaving the city every day for their native places in different parts of the state, if only to escape the lockdown restrictions. Most of these people belong to middle class and lower middle class families. “We are four of us staying at an apartment in Chennai. I was the only person to go out and buy essentials. The rest of the family stayed indoors,” an IT employee in Chennai said.
“We felt safe for the last three months – but after Unlock 1.0, the situation got worse. People were roaming without masks on the roads. Three persons tested positive in our apartment, and we have no clue how they were infected. I work from home, so we have decided to go to our native place.”
While the public healthcare system continues to struggle, the administration has been coming under increasing flak for its surprisingly tepid response. Opposition parties have now taken to demanding that health minister Vijaya Baskar be transferred or resign. But that is still a tall order.
S. Jeeva Bharathi is a journalist in Chennai.