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COVID-19: Has Community Transmission Taken Root in Chennai?

COVID-19: Has Community Transmission Taken Root in Chennai?

Health workers spray disinfectant in Chennai. Photo: PTI.

Chennai: On May 14, Swathi Prabakaran, a student of Madras Medical College, published a series of tweets in which she described the lack of help from the Tamil Nadu government towards her mother and other members of her family who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The thread, which soon went viral, explained how the government had no knowledge of how her mother had contracted COVID-19.

On the same day, Tamil Nadu’s health minister C. Vijaya Baskar declared that the state had conducted the highest number of tests. “We crossed three lakh today,” he said.

The state health department also claimed no primary contact cases had been reported in the last 10 days.

Primary cases refers to people who had contracted COVID-19 and then spread it to others in the state. How they contracted it may vary. However, the Government of India has maintained that India doesn’t yet have community transmission, which means ‘primary cases’ officially includes only those who recently travelled abroad and got COVID-19 outside the country or those who recently came in contact with these ‘imported cases’.

In this context, Prabakaran’s plea refers to the fact that her mother does not fall in either category, prompting concerns with community transmission has in fact begun in India contrary to the government’s claims.

Prabakaran’s thread was followed by another from one Ramkumar, who is a doctor according to his profile; he wrote that two members of his family had tested positive without any contact or travel history and yet the city’s corporation officials had not tested others living in the same house.

Meanwhile, another set of frontline workers – the conservancy workers – had no idea what they had been forced to deal with, nor are they on social media platforms where they can be heard.

Also read: COVID-19: Our Obsession with Numbers Is Misleading Us

From March 24, doctors and nurses have been asked to undergo quarantine for seven days after shifts. But conservancy workers have been working on the streets without a single day of break.

On May 15, the Tamil Nadu government had announced a relief of Rs 2 lakh for permanent conservancy workers affected by COVID-19. But sources in the Chennai Corporation said several workers had tested positive across various zones in the city, and almost none had received the relief amount.

In April, the corporation temporarily hired several hundred employees to collect details from the doorsteps of every citizen. One of these workers subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 and has been quarantined at home, and said she did not receive any help from the corporation, her employer.

“I was admitted to the hospital on May 5 and after nine days, was discharged. My job is to remove garbage from streets, I have not gone inside any homes. I don’t know how I contracted the virus.”

The worker is aware that she was asked to go to places with coronavirus-affected patients as part of her beat, like her colleagues, to disinfect the area.

“I get Rs 372 as daily wage but since my illness, my livelihood has taken a major hit. Many workers who have tested positive have not received any help from the Corporation, the government should come forward to help us,” she told The Wire Science.

Chennai Corporation’s temporary census workers have been visiting every house to collect information since April 4, and several of them have tested positive. Thiru Vika Nagar zone tops the list, with more than 45 temporary workers in just one ward testing positive, and 13 in another.

“On April 4, when we started this work, the Chennai Corporation provided ordinary masks and cotton gloves,” one worker said. “After three weeks, one of our co-workers tested positive. After a few days, all the workers in our batch tested positive but we don’t know how it started. We didn’t get any help from the Corporation. Most of us have not even got our salaries yet.

However, the corporation has removed their names from the list of workers. “I got the information from one of the officials that coronavirus-affected census workers’ names have taken out from the list,” the worker said. “None of us have been paid for a single month. We had helped identify symptomatic persons in the beginning, but nobody cares about us now.”

Meanwhile, the state government has claimed that the spike in COVID-19 positive cases in Chennai was because of the Koyambedu cluster. On May 13, chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami had said the traders and vendors operating out of this large marker hadn’t been willing to accept changes necessary to contain the spread.

But those in the market have a different version. “There are 4,000 registered shops in Koyambedu but outside of that, there were many small shops on the road just outside the market,” a senior vendor at the market said. “The officials failed to clear the shops.” He and others also said corporation officials ignored them when they tried to raise the issue at one of their joint meetings.

Also read: After the 2015 Floods, Chennai Only Exploited the People Who Were Cleaning it

According to public health experts, many incidents have clearly point to the emergence of community transmission in Chennai.

“Tamil Nadu made two mistakes,” Dr Sundararaman, global coordinator for the People’s Health Movement and a former professor of medicine, told The Wire Science. “It failed to test persons with no contact history but with symptoms like fever. This has changed now. More tests are being done. Also in the second lockdown, the idea was to stop community transmission, but the reality turned out to be exactly the opposite. There was an increase in cases after that.”

Stigmatisation is another issue. “You cannot treat human beings as vectors transmitting the diseases. They are patients who need treatment,” he explained. “The government has effectively failed to create a community based goodwill. It’s not the police’s duty to do it.”

S. Jeeva Bharathi is a journalist in Chennai.

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