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Why Did the Mumbai Rains and the City’s COVID-19 Spike Coincide?

Why Did the Mumbai Rains and the City’s COVID-19 Spike Coincide?

A bridge from S.V. Road in Goregaon to Ram Mandir was closed for traffic after a water line ruptured in the aftermath of rains in Mumbai. Photo: Twitter/@mybmc.

Bengaluru: As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise around the country, Mumbai – one of the worst-hit cities in India – has reported another spike in the number of daily cases.

As on September 26, the average number of cases reported every successive day has nearly doubled compared to the same time last month, according to figures published by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

Speaking at an online event, BMC commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal however said that the spike couldn’t be called a second wave.

According to the BMC’s data, R Central Ward (Borivali, Gorai, Chogale Nagar), H West Ward (Bandra West) and K West Ward (Andheri West and Oshiwara) have reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases thus far, with a case-load doubling time higher than the city’s average.

“There has been a tremendous increase in the number of cases, and may be much higher than the reported cases,” Nitin Thorve, a medical doctor and the founder and director of the Nidan Group, said. “However, the mortality has decreased because people are more aware now and doctors are well set with the treatment protocol.”

Dr Aarti Yadav, a doctor at the CritiCare Hospital in Andheri West and Nesco Quarantine Centre in Goregaon East, also confirmed the virus’s renewed spread, saying more elderly patients who are bed-ridden at home have started testing positive.

However, a resident of Goregaon West, who resides in an apartment complex that has reported over a dozen COVID-19 cases thus far, disagreed with the awareness bit. “Many have become mentally immune to COVID-19 and are not taking it seriously,” she told The Wire Science.

According to her, many people are not wearing masks right, aren’t following physical-distancing in public transport, workplaces are being reopened too quickly, people have started gathering without proper precautions for different occasions, and public sanitation is lacking. Other residents of the city The Wire Science spoke to were of the same view.

The spike in cases also played out against the backdrop of a spate of heavy rain in the city last week. As a result, Nair Hospital – a dedicated COVID-19 facility – had stagnating water. Other care facilities, like the J.J. Hospital and the Bandra Kurla Complex COVID Care Centre, had been flooded last month for the same reason.

A couple weeks ago, the Nesco Quarantine Centre got waterlogged and the management pumped the water out. However, Dr Yadav said, the rains “delayed certain patients from seeking medical care due to the difficulties in transportation, and hampered medical supplies.”

The resident of Goregaon West also said it has become difficult to access medical facilities in time thanks to waterlogged streets. And because traffic moves slower when roads are flooded, people spend more time outside before coming home, increasing their risk of being exposed to the virus. Last week, following a heavy downpour, city authorities cancelled many local trains, forcing people to crowd in the few trains that still ran.

She added that the heavy rains had also compromised public sanitisation, and affected officials’ ability to seal off containment zones. Earlier, when COVID-19 cases were reported from an area, the BMC would disinfect its immediate neighbourhood and seal off the affected area. But with the rains, adherence to these procedures has turned erratic.

In addition, people are also at greater risk of contracting bacterial infections like diarrhoea, further stressing local hospitals and ultimately making it harder for COVID-19 patients to seek treatment and care. Storm-shelters in particular are at greater risk of such outbreaks, Arivudai Nambi Appadurai, a director at the World Resources Institute India, Bengaluru, told The Wire Science earlier.

It is very difficult to link individual weather events to climate change, but the latter is by and large expected to throw existing weather patterns off kilter – such as by amplifying their intensity or prolonging their effects.

In effect, according to Appadurai, climate change is a “threat multiplier” that takes an existing crisis – like the pandemic – and makes it worse by introducing new problems for officials and the people to deal with.

As T.V. Padma reported for The Wire Science in May this year, “Extreme weather events made stronger by climate change – like tropical storms – could set back efforts to control the pandemic by disrupting supplies of food, clean water and electricity, and disrupt hospital services.”

Cyclone Nisarga, which made landfall some 50 km south of Mumbai in early June, was the first storm of its intensity in the area since 1891. Monsoons aren’t spared climate change’s effects either. One reason they are expected to become more intense is that the monsoon winds flow over the ocean, collecting moisture, before depositing on land. And the Arabian Sea has been becoming warmer, increasing the winds’ moisture content.

And in June as well, Mumbai had reported a surge in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“During the monsoons, patients with diseases that usually break out in the rainy season are at risk of coming in contact with COVID-19 patients,” Suganya R., formerly a resident medical officer at the Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, said. Dr Yadav concurred – saying that only those who have persistent symptoms tend to visit a hospital or clinic because of the anxiety surrounding the presence of a fever.

According to Thorve, although the rains may have had some effect on treating infections, such as by making it harder to commute through the city, they are unlikely to have directly contributed to the virus’s spread to any appreciable extent. Instead, he said, the increased movement may be more to blame.

Put differently, if Mumbai city had been better prepared for the waters – such as by keeping storm-water drains clear and maintaining an adequate supply of drugs and vaccines at various sales and distribution centres – the surge in COVID-19 cases could have been mitigated.

The spectre of disease hovers over most Indian cities after heavy rains. The experiences of Hyderabad and Patna in October last year, and in large parts of Assam this year, illustrate the recurring nature of this issue.

Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh wrote for The Wire in April, “The COVID-19 pandemic is not a crisis of the city, but the crisis of a certain kind of city, where decades of ‘market-oriented’ policies have imposed severe limits on the public planning system – health care, food distribution, housing, transport, services – to respond meaningfully to the pandemic.”

According to Thorve, Dr Yadav and others, the rains further compromise just these aspects.

Joel P. Joseph is a science writer.

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