The decision of the Kerala government to entrust contact-tracing for COVID-19 to police is ill-advised on several counts.
Heavy-handed measures will only generate public resentment and resistance, with some people even finding ingenious ways to dodge the restrictions.
The authorities think that strict rules and strong enforcement are needed to achieve their goals. However, it is better for them to remember that their rule making powers, as Erskine May said in respect of legislative powers of British Parliament, is limited by the willingness of the people to obey or people’s power to resist.
The police are a high risk group, as far as chances of spread of COVID-19 among them are concerned, owing to a host of factors. They already have to interact with people at close quarters. The tendency of many of them to abuse and manhandle people only adds to the risk. The condition of their camps and lay-out of their residential quarters could also contribute towards faster spread of the disease. At the same time, it is important to keep the force free of infections as their services are crucial in other areas as maintenance of law and order, prevention of crime and emergency response. So, they should be kept out of the business of contacting potential COVID-19 patients. They are already dealing with a stupendous number of about 2.7 lakh cases in connection with enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.
The government is entrusting the job to police not because they have nobody else to do the job. The staffs of many government departments are idling at home, with no salary cuts at these times. They could be deployed for the work. It was strange that government could not even find data entry operators for COVID-19 testing centres and had to recruit fresh when many typists and data entry operators of the government were sitting at home.
Healthcare is a civilian task for which even ‘civil’ police officers need not be involved.
The rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Thiruvananthapuram district, extension of lock down and increasing restrictions show that the government is failing contain the disease in the district.
The benefit from several of the restrictions is marginal while the impact on livelihoods is serious. Measures like holidays for banks on Saturdays have little benefit. The restricted working hours for shops selling provisions and groceries— where no demand-drop could be expected from fewer working hours, only serves to add to crowding, especially when home deliveries are banned.
The fast spread of the disease in the coastal areas was unanticipated especially in the absence of proper surveillance among the poor fishers. But the spread of the disease at Ramachandra textiles, Pothys and other showrooms, shops and markets and infections in hospitals could have been anticipated. The first cases at the hyper market, which also makes home deliveries, were known as back as in May. About a month later, government stops home deliveries hitting every agency making home deliveries. As pointed out in an earlier post, home deliveries are safer than going around shopping, especially for the older people. On one hand, the government talks about reverse-quarantine, and on the other hand, makes it almost impractical for aged couples living alone to stay at home.
The government should apply Gandhiji’s talisman while imposing restrictions over COVID-19. It is fairly comfortable for the large population of government servants, teachers and their families and others drawing regular salaries in Trivandrum to be under lock-down. However, that is not the case with daily wage earners. The government has done nothing to provide financial assistance to them, other than releasing pension arrears for older persons.
Food assistance in the coastal region (mostly to fishers) is limited to five kg of rice and one kg of pulses. The population is denied protein-rich fish for consumption as they cannot go out to fish. If one goes without good food, one’s immunity may be compromised.
The lock-down in coastal villages may be beneficial to the urban centres (though that deprives them also of fish); but for fishers, it does not reduce crowding significantly. Interactions among neighbours are inevitable when there is hardly any home to ‘stay at home’. On a normal day, a significant portion of the population will be dispersed—fishing at sea or selling fish. Now, they are all packed together. It would have helped if widespread testing was undertaken and patients isolated and lock-down lifted in a week or two. However, testing is proceeding at a slow pace.
While the overall performance of Kerala is very good compared to most other States in managing the pandemic, the following deficiencies should be flagged.
Testing is inadequate and progressing at a slow pace. The fact that some COVID-19 cases are confirmed after the patient is dead goes to prove this. Now, the government has decided to replace PCR tests for discharge of patients with antigen tests. Antigen tests are less reliable than PCR tests and World Health Organisation (WHO) does not recommend it for clinical purposes owing to uncertainties regarding results. Apparently, the government is compelled to do so— there is already a daily backlog in respect of PCR test results.
In fact, the government has failed to set up adequate testing and treatment facilities to deal with a spike in COVID-19 cases during the past six months. Hence, the hospitals are now full and first line treatment centres with bare facilities are being set up speedily. There is shortage of personal to man the hospitals and facilities. This is compounded by many doctors and health workers testing positive for COVID-19.
Now, government is thinking of a State-wide lock down. It is notable that the lock down at the national level as well as the triple lock down in Trivandrum failed to bring down cases. Activities in the agriculture and fisheries sectors and much of the service sector cannot just be stopped for long periods. It can even lead to food shortages and much misery. Wider and effective enforcement of social distancing at work places, markets and functions and events may yield better results. Business should not be allowed in congested and crowded places and norms should be specified for online deliveries. Use of masks should become a habit when one steps out of homes.
Kerala already has a low case fatality rate from COVID-19. Facilities should be set up on a war-footing to deal with increasing number of cases and keep the fatality rate low.
Kerala is slipping in containing the COVID contagion. The extension of lock down in Trivandrum and elsewhere is indication of this.
What went wrong was the failure to enforce social distancing norms including wearing of masks and adoption of precautions relating to opening of malls and markets. The Trivandrum Medical College Hospital was showing signs of fatigue and weaknesses and even contributed marginally to local spread of the disease.
We already know that lock down only help to delay spread of the pandemic. The Kerala government is only repeating the failed model of Modi government by announcing lock down on the previous night. The government even moved an armed battalion to Poonthura to enforce the “triple lock down”. The results were immediately visible with a protest by fishers that threw all the social distancing to winds. Another round of protests could be expected if the government prevents fishers from going to sea for long to earn their livelihood, without giving them any monetary assistance. There will also be shortage of fish in the market.
The most laughable aspect of triple lock down in Trivandrum was the Collector’s order which said that people could call the police for grocery supplies to homes. She could not imagine that the police are ill-equipped for such a job without any system for receiving orders, billing and delivery. Moreover, as force that comes into close contact with people on an everyday basis, they are the riskiest group to undertake home deliveries.
To add to this drama, this week the administration had announced ban on home deliveries. After the COVID-19 crisis arose, many agencies were supplying milk products, provisions and groceries to homes efficiently. This was the safest method for supply of provisions and groceries, especially to senior citizens living alone. The administration stopped this overnight, forcing vulnerable groups to go to stores, groceries and sellers of meat and fish.
It is true that people working with a hypermarket making home deliveries from East Fort and getting their supplies from Tamil Nadu had tested positive for COVID-19. However, people were not widely informed of this. No restrictions were imposed on godowns, markets and hotels functioning in congested areas. It was notable that transmission occurred at a congested shop in Saphalyam complex which itself lack proper air circulation. The Palayam and parts of Chala markets are places where people will have to move in close proximity. Token system at the entrance and one way movements may reduce the problems to some extent, but that has not been tried.
Home deliveries are safer than people visiting large markets and stores. There is scope for godowns to operate from different locations. The only thing is that the government should stipulate minimum space for operations and other protocols for them. Similar is the case with hotels supplying parcels. They should have sufficient space for the kitchen and packing. Space left empty in the absence of diners could be used to expand the space available for cooking and delivery.
Recently, food delivery boys in Trivandrum had contacted COVID-19. Instead of banning deliveries in the light of developments like that, the administration should go for regular health check-up of such vulnerable groups, avoiding the easy way of shutting everything down. The economic impact and human tragedies resulting from shut downs could be large. Lock downs are not something you can use off and on.
Despite claims to the contrary, Kerala’s preparedness for dealing with the spreading diseases seems to be inadequate. This is at the root of current restrictions which destroys the livelihood thousands of people and possibly creates more victims than the toll from COVID-19. As days go by, Opposition to lock downs are bound to increase, besides number of those circumventing or breaking the restrictions.
ONE INDIA—we hear about that often during these Covid-19 times. But the disease is proving that we are far from achieving unity. Look at the following reports.
Karnataka Closes Kerala Border, 7 Die Due to Delayed Medical Assistance Telegana Stops Issuing Passes to Migrant Workers and Others Returning from Maharastra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Karnataka Bans Entry of People from Gujarat, Maharastra and Tamil Nadu till May 31 Kerala Stops Malayalees Returning From Other States at Border 1000 Buses from Rajastran Dispatched from Alwar Stopped at UP Bharatpur Border by UP Cops 40 Haryana Buses from Gurgaon with Stranded Migrants Were Sent Back by UP Police
Indian States were stopping their own people from entering the State on the ground that they were coming from Covid-hit red zone, not to speak of people from neighbouring States. The BJP Government in UP not only refused entry for buses from Congress-ruled Rajasthan but also from BJP-ruled Haryana. So, the migrant drama played out in UP was more than a Congress-BJP tussle.
Centre fails to lead The Central Government did not intervene or coordinate movement of people wanting to return home for nearly two months now. All it did finally was to send some trains here and there without waiting for clearance from the States. However, this did not address even part of the problem. In fact, the States were acting as if they were different countries and returning workers were refugees coming to their States. This happened because the Centre did not take overall responsibility for Covid-19 control.
The Union Government, however, tried to achieve a form of paramountancy by dictating orders to the State governments on lock down. But, it failed to address critical issues like financing the fight against the disease and addressing inter-State issues such as that of the migrants, and even inter-State movement of patients. Much of the resources for the fight in terms of equipment, personnel et cetera had to be mobilised by the States. The Central agencies other than the ICMR played hardly any part.
Soon, the Centre lost the plot. By the end of the first phase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who announced the lock down without consulting anyone, started consulting the Chief Ministers. By the time, he announced the fourth phase; the Centre had to concede more freedoms to the States. This was despite the fact that the lock down measures hardly attracted any Opposition from the States. The States were allowed additional borrowing from the market and they went into a ‘self-reliant’ mode as if they had embraced the Atma Nirbhar slogan of the Prime Minister. The borders were made as impermeable as possible, often citing order of the Union Home Ministry.
The Kerala Example Kerala had done well in containing the disease, but miscalculated on what the lock down will or will not achieve elsewhere in the country. Its achievements were largely the result of early detection, isolation, contact tracing and better care. It also looked after the migrant workers. The lock down at the national level made it easy for it to enforce social distancing and adopt precautionary measures including closure of places of worship and other establishments.
In its bid to keep its record intact, it delayed steps to facilitate return of Malayalees outside the State and abroad. This was despite some States like UP bringing back students from Kota in Rajasthan. In fact, Kerala could have asked the Centre to facilitate return of Keralites to the State and migrants to their respective States, after the first phase.
Despite claims to the contrary, it was also not well-prepared for a large influx of Malayalees from outside. This caused crowding and other issues at the border check posts. The migrant workers became restless as their return was being delayed, often because other States were also trying to keep matters pending. Hence, Kerala too had at least isolated cases of migrants trying to reach their homes on trucks and cycles. Even now, the mess is far from over. The State did not operate a single bus or Sramik train for Keralites from Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai till now. Keralites had to arrange their own vehicles for their return to their homes at high costs. Sramik trains from Delhi and other places are yet to reach Kerala.
There is still no national plan as to how to deal with Covid-19 other than extending lock downs. Full mobility may not be restored at least until July. Kerala has a total lock down on Sundays, the scientific reasoning of which is unclear other than delaying the infections by a day or two. Lower business hours and total closures on Sundays could only increase the crowd. We still have no trajectory either at the national or State levels as to what is to be achieved even by July.
Lock down has failed in large parts of the country. As the Central government projected, Covid-19 cases are not going to become zero by the middle of this month. The cases are multiplying at a fast rate in several States. The exceptions are only some small States like Kerala and Chhattisgarh and the North Eastern States. Most of them, especially Kerala and Chhattisgarh achieved control, by early detection, contact tracing and proper care of the patients.
Almost all States could not shore up supplies and create infrastructure needed during then lock down. Several States could not prevent spiralling up of the cases and deaths. While the Centre claimed that curve could be flattened with the lock down and brought down to zero, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had told the people that lock down could only be a pause. Even a pause could not be achieved in cases of several parts of the country during lock down.
Now, there is little option than opening up fast. The tragedy of migrant labourers is still unravelling. They as well as the rest of the population are increasingly becoming susceptible. While the lower class is facing hunger, the middle class is suffering from lack of exercise and exposure to sunlight (sunlight fortifies Vitamin D in your body). All this reduces immunity. The economy is collapsing and millions are facing unemployment.
There is confusion of policies at the government level both in dealing with the pandemic and economy. There is also a bias against the poorer and less influential sections of the society. Guidelines on dealing with the Covid-19 are changed frequently because arrangements to deal with the disease in the best way are still not in place. Now, there is only one way—to face the pandemic head on and pray for herd immunity, achievement of slower spreading by means of physical distancing and use of masks and faster development of vaccines or medicines.
The government has now resumed rail services in a limited way. But non-AC coaches may be safer than AC coaches. Similarly a few hours of travel by air will be safer than a few days travel by Rajadhani class train. So, flights should be resumed along with metro services with restrictions. All manufacturing units should be allowed to function with physical distancing norms. All services except cinemas, entertainment programmes, sports events, meetings, religious gatherings and festivals should be permitted.
Kerala should have facilitated an ordered return of Keralites stranded in other States by arranging buses and trains for them. This is what other States have done for stranded citizens though belatedly. (However, even those States nor the Centre have taken care of the entire migrant work force till now).
The Kerala government let the stranded Keralites including students to their own devices, subjected them to a cumbersome bureaucratic process and created chaos at the borders. Many had to spend large sums from their pockets to hire vehicles.
This shows the State was ill-prepared for the influx of Keralites returning to their homes. This was despite its claims that quarantine facilities were ready. In fact, the LDF government is facing the consequences of successive governments driving large numbers Keralites out of the State by not creating job opportunities here.
The skewed development process in the past (Kerala model) has resulted in white collar workers from Kerala leaving for jobs outside and blue collar migrant workers coming to Kerala. Neither the State nor the Centre had any plans to deal with their issues before or after declaring the first and second phase of lock down. Even during this third phase, very little is being done compared to the enormity of the problem.
The Centre and States should have jointly addressed this problem long back and funded the process. But the Centre has abdicated its responsibility in an inter-State matter. So, the States cannot be faulted for much of the problems. The solution now may be to open up public transport and take the risk (unless the State and Centre can manage the current situation properly). A degree of social distancing, hand-washing and masks could be insisted upon.
Whether you do phased withdrawal of lock down or not, the present humanitarian crisis cannot be allowed to continue. There is now the possibility of corruption rearing its head at the borders —many will sneak in or be taken for a ride by agents, literally as well as figuratively. The government is already bogged down by cases registered for violation of lock down. There is also the distinct possibility that something similar to the tragedy at Aurangabad could happen in Kerala also. People are already taking the forests routes. Migrant workers are trying to smuggle themselves out in truck and some have started long walk from Kasaragod. In Eranakulam and other districts, police have beaten up migrant workers. Someone could die anytime in incidents like these.
It is also notable that Keralites stranded in other States are getting step-motherly treatment compared to those returning from Gulf countries. Politicians know where money and influence are.
More details are now available as to how Kerala government messed up the return of Keralites stranded in other States.
The about-turn of the government on issuing passes at the borders, suspension of online registration etc caused much confusion. The instruction 3 of Government order dated 6/5/2020 indicated that people could come to the borders without passes. The only condition was that they had to undergo institutional quarantine. However, the government changed tune by May 8 because it could not handle the influx. The Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan stated in his evening press conference that only those with passes from Kerala government would be allowed to enter the State. (The download link to this order, appended below, has now been removed from the official Website of General Administration Department).
Meanwhile, the registration process for issue of passes remained suspended for two days. Many people who thought that no more passes would be issued rushed to the entry points at the borders. Besides, the stranded Keralites were required to take passes from originating State as well as Kerala and valid dates for passage often did not match. So, some landed at the borders ahead of their date of entry to Kerala. (This has now been sorted out with Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu will now issue passes only if passes of Kerala have already been obtained). These were also people who were traveling in a group. While some got their passes, application of others of the same group were pending (and they hoped to sort out the matter at the borders). Sometimes this was because they belonged to different districts. Some districts took longer time to grant the passes after making arrangements for quarantine. (Still the system worked effectively in facilitating and enforcing quarantine). Though the government claimed that it had more than a lakh rooms ready for quarantining people, they were not actually ready for occupations. Besides, the government wanted to give priority to expatriates arriving from abroad.