By the second week of April, anybody who knew Mumbai well, knew that the city’s Covid-19 fight was beyond the control of the state government. Stories of repeated lockdown violations, poor quarantine facilities at hospitals and quarantine zones, migrant workers’ miseries, inconsistent testing strategies and resultant farcical contact tracing exercise, had become commonplace.
Today, 27 days later, the situation in Mumbai is catastrophic. The most crucial hospitals, including Sion, KEM and Shatabdi, are the hotbeds for transmission of the disease. The levels of criminal negligence are appalling. There is an acute shortage of hospital beds, what with 1,000 cases or so being reported every day, pointing towards a collapse of the city’s medical infrastructure.
Horrifying, distressing images from Lokmanya Tilak Hospital in Sion, Mumbai, where patients appear to be in beds right next to #Covid19 corpses. Hair standing on end. Full report on my show @ 5.30pm pic.twitter.com/T0mLiGKVTs— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) May 7, 2020
On the other hand, if you step out of Mumbai, all along the Mumbai-Indore highway, the sheer magnitude of migrant exodus is incomparable to any other city. There are shocking reports that say 96 per cent of migrant workers in Mumbai did not receive government ration during lockdown. No wonder then that they had to flee the city in abject desperation.
As of today, more than 1,000 policemen in Maharashtra are Covid-19-infected, thus demoralising the police force.
Quite understandably, the spike in Maharashtra Covid-19 cases continues unabated. Maharashtra now contributes generously to India’s tally with more than one-third of the Covid-19 cases in the country, while Mumbai alone contributes more than one-fifth.
The Maharashtra government is quarely to blame for the spike in coronavirus cases in the state. (Photo: Reuters)
Let me without mincing words list down the five factors responsible for the catastrophic situation that Mumbai finds itself in today.
1. The difference between a 24/7 hands-on CM and a weekly Facebook live CM is stark
Uddhav Thackeray clearly belongs to the latter category. Simple questions: Is there a war room at all in the state to monitor the Covid-19 war in Mumbai or is Mumbai entirely outsourced to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)? How many meetings, video conferences or interactions has the CM had at all with the state Home Minister or Health Minister? How many interactions has the CM had with senior bureaucrats through the crisis? Has the CM visited any hospital to see the situation himself?
These are serious questions that merit an RTI query seeking the CM’s daily schedule during the crisis. I’m afraid the results could be acutely embarrassing.
Last week, the CM had called an all-party meet at Mantralaya, which he himself did not attend physically, only to make him available via video call. The attitude problem and flawed work ethics are thus, far too evident.
2. Shambolic lockdown
Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh recently tweeted, "As many as 1,03,345 offences registered under Sec 188 of IPC since the lockdown leading to 19,630 arrests & seizure of 55,784 vehicles.₹3,87,50,494 have been collected in fines from offenders."
As many as 1,03,345 offences registered under Sec 188 of IPC since the lockdown leading to 19,630 arrests & seizure of 55,784 vehicles.₹3,87,50,494 have been collected in fines from offenders.— ANIL DESHMUKH (@AnilDeshmukhNCP) May 11, 2020
The sheer information that 1 lakh-plus serious lockdown violations were allowed, poses a big question mark on the credibility of the lockdown. Besides, there was the despicable Palghar episode, where 100-plus villagers gathered at night to butcher two monks right in the middle of the lockdown.
So was there a serious lockdown at all in Maharashtra? Deshmukh’s belated decision to request for 20 companies of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) was too little too late.
3. Poor contact tracing and containment
There are several new areas in Mumbai, including some large slums, where the disease spread after one month of being in lockdown. Mulund, for example, was among the least affected areas till 10 days ago, until it reported a sudden spike.
When the disease spreads to new areas after a month of lockdown, it is only and only an indictment of the shortcuts in containment strategy and lockdown lapses.
4. BMC chief isn’t the CM
There are substantial indicators that suggest that the second tier of government, that is, the state government, abdicated its responsibility towards Mumbai by propelling the third tier to the forefront. As such, many hasty and inconsistent decisions were taken by BMC, which only resulted in a rapid and irreversible deterioration of the situation.
For instance, in mid-April, one fine day, BMC abruptly changed its testing rules, wherein high risk asymptomatic contacts of Covid-19 patients were not to be tested. This was a suicidal step, which resulted in even some high-risk doctors not being tested. Former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis had raised a protest against the decision, but in vain.
The spike in Mumbai cases in the last two weeks is directly attributable to this alteration. The administration tried to bring down numbers artificially, without realising they were playing with fire.
The bottom line is that the BMC chief cannot be a substitute for the CM. The state cannot abdicate his responsibility towards the city by saying BMC has been authorised to take all necessary decisions. That is a sure shot recipe for disaster.
5. Finally, the perils of usurped mandate
A usurped, subverted mandate carries very little motivation for ministers to really take onus and perform. Does the CM enjoy the basic authority to pull up the Home Minister or Health Minister not belonging to his party? Does the CM enjoy the authority to instruct Guardian Ministers to be in their respective districts?
Uddhav Thackeray does not have the mandate to question his own Home and Health Ministers. (Photo: Reuters)
Guardian Ministers in Maharashtra have been conspicuous by their absence from where they should be.
Instead of attending to the Covid-19 crisis, the state government has constantly looked occupied, trying to make their CM an MLC.
So what is the solution from here? Does Mumbai have any hope left?
There are two solutions:
1. Increase hospital beds
Given the acute shortage of hospital beds, the need of the hour is to reserve hospital beds for serious patients and those who require ICU and ventilators. The rest need to be shifted to Covid Care Centres or to their homes. Any serious patient needs to get hospital admittance within 90 minutes. Throughout the last few weeks, patients have had to struggle for endless hours, hopping from one hospital to the other. A few died on the way to the hospital.
The temporary Covid-19 hospital coming up at BKC should have been operational by now. That the Maharashtra government has failed to increase hospital beds, despite being aware of the deteriorating situation, exposes its frivolous approach.
2. Zero tolerance for violations
Eid is round the corner and violation of social distancing norms are anticipated in certain areas. These areas need to be under control of central forces, and violations need to be dealt with an iron hand.
It is high time the state government showed the professionalism expected in managing India’s financial capital.