Heath workers and technicians work before Tamil Nadu chief minister Palanisamy’s visit to a COVID-19 care centre in Chennai, July 7, 2020. Photo: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar.
Chennai: When Tamil Nadu electricity minister P. Thangamani tested positive for COVID-19 on July 8, Twitter got abuzz with questions about whether chief minister Edappadi Palanisamy had COVID-19 as well. On July 7, Thangamani had been in a meeting with Palanisamy and other top officials. A day earlier – on July 6 – Thangamani had been to the party headquarters as well.
It was only on July 14 that the chief minister’s office confirmed Palanisamy had tested negative, as had others who had recently been physically proximate to Thangamani. However, this good news wasn’t nearly enough to quell criticism from all quarters that Palanisamy shouldn’t have visited different districts in the states and participated in government events at this time – effectively distracting district officials as well as medical workers from other, potentially more important responsibilities.
A source close to the chief minister’s office told The Wire Science that “it is really tough for us,” with reference to Palanisamy’s schedule. “Officials at districts have also been testing positive, and we have been indirectly requested to avoid visits since doing so would put more pressure on them.”
Ministers Thangamani, K.P. Anbazhagan, Nilofer Kafeel, K. Sellur Raju and some others have tested positive for COVID-19. On July 20, state health secretary J. Radhakrishnan’s family members tested positive. On July 23, in an official statement, the Tamil Nadu Raj Bhavan confirmed 84 persons working there had tested positive, although none of them had been in contact with the governor or senior officials there.
Even as the government announced lockdown after lockdown in Chennai and other districts, sources said the chief minister and his cabinet colleagues were setting a bad example by hopping across districts for government events, which have continued unabated.
However, senior AIADMK leader and Mettur MLA S. Semmalai defended the chief minister’s itinerary, claiming that Palanisamy’s presence helped speed up work at the district level. “We are fighting a war, so a king should stand before the soldiers. That is how Palanisamy is handling this,” he said.
On June 19, the government announced an intensive lockdown for Chennai to arrest the virus’s spread. But around the same time, many people began to leave the city for their native places in the rest of Tamil Nadu, undermining the lockdown’s effectiveness. The government then hurriedly took steps to manage the exodus.
Experts have said the intensive lockdown in Chennai helped to flatten its case-load curve. After the lockdowns, the number of new cases in Chennai dropped. However, those in Salem, Coimbatore, Tiruchirappalli and Madurai surged. This is Tamil Nadu’s situation today as well: while Chennai’s COVID-19 epidemic seems to be relatively under control, criticism of the state’s response in other districts has mounted.
For example, on June 19, Madurai had 550 cases and seven deaths; only three weeks later, the district had reported 5,482 cases and 101 deaths. The case fatality rate in Madurai was also three-times higher.
On July 6, the state government took a serious view of the district administration’s failure to control the epidemic and extended the city’s intensive lockdown to July 12. However, sources said Madurai district collector T.G. Vinay’s transfer was “put on hold” because of “his connections with a minister”. “Tamil Nadu’s Chief Secretary K. Shanmugam had expressed his unhappiness and even pulled up the collector at a review meeting, in which officials from the Centre were also present. He has now ordered the collector to step up testing,” one person familiar with the proceedings said.
Meanwhile, Madurai MP S. Venkatesan has demanded the state government make sense of the mismatch in the district’s COVID-19 death tolls as reported from hospitals and from burial grounds. “At least 70 deaths have not been added in the state health bulletin, going by the numbers coming from burial grounds,” he said.
As it happens, on July 22, the Tamil Nadu government added 444 deaths to the state’s COVID-19 death toll based on a report submitted by an 11-member expert committee, setup by the state health department. Last month, there had been reports that the department had missed 236 deaths reported in Chennai Corporation. When opposition parties raised the issue, department officials denied the allegations – but they have since had to correct themselves.
Venkatesan has also been joined by the MLA of Thiruparankundram, a town in Madurai district, P. Saravanan. After Chennai’s lockdown began, more than 35,000 people left the capital and entered Madurai. “The government had initially announced a lockdown for only four districts. In places like Madurai, the increase in positive cases could be attributed to the spread [at a local] vegetable market,” Saravanan said. “Until now, the Madurai district administration has not released the exact COVID-19 death counts. Ministers are not following physical distancing norms in government functions and field visits.”
Saravanan, a member of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, also accused the state government of labouring in denial. “We are in stage 3 [community transmission] now, but the government is unwilling to accept it. There is no transparency in reporting the cases or the availability of medicines.”
Similarly, in Virudhunagar, a neighbouring district, the number of positive cases has been rising steadily since Chennai’s lockdown began. Former education minister and DMK MLA Thangam Thennarasu said the administration was short on testing equipment. “For day to day activities, Virudhunagar is largely dependent on Madurai, so the spread is inevitable.” However, he continued, “The minister from this district has not held even a meeting to discuss the situation. Things are continuing to get worse here.”
Dr G.R. Raveendranath, a physician in Chennai and general secretary of the Doctors’ Association for Social Equality, said the government ought to test aggressively but isn’t. “The number of labs must be increased, and the government must start [conducting] antigen tests to identify positive cases in a short span of time,” he told The Wire Science. “It is also a problem that medical facilities are not available in other districts like in Chennai. This should be attended to.”
“By conducting … door to door check-ups, the number of cases can be contained in districts like Madurai, Virudhunagar and Theni,” he finished.
While opposition leader M.K. Stalin has been critical of chief minister Palanisamy’s government, Semmalai, the MLA from Mettur, rejected the charges saying “COVID-19 is not a state issue” and that the state is “working in accordance with guidelines issued by the Centre and the Indian Council of Medical Research”.
Semmalai also called the state’s epidemic “a medical disaster, not a political disaster”, and said the state has to operate within certain guidelines. “The government … is doing its best, in consultation with experts. [It has been] tracking, tracing, isolation, testing and quarantining.” He also said that when the number of new positive cases and the number of people discharged, presumably on the same day, “come in equal numbers, it is a sign that the COVID-19 curve is coming down”.
S. Jeeva Bharathi is a journalist in Chennai.