In mid-April Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami had blithely predicted that the number of new COVID-19 cases in the state would dwindle to none within a month. Two months later, he threw up his hands abjectly with the words, “Only God knows when the virus will be gone.”
Between these two extreme scenarios lies the picture of a state government clueless about combating the virus. Poor political leadership, lack of transparency and a shackled bureaucracy have all played bit parts in this absurd drama. The figures paint a stark scenario: from 2,526 cases and 28 deaths on May 1 it spiralled to 78,335 cases and 1,025 deaths on June 27. Chennai alone accounted for 51,669 cases. The daily increase jumped past 3,000.
“These figures were hazy as data had not been correlated, indicating little coordination between the health department and municipal corporations that record deaths. The government was managing figures by not recording the actual number of deaths, as when the Chennai Corporation failed to report 200 deaths in April and May. Officials and ministers were hand in glove in painting a picture that the virus was under control,” admits a senior health official.
When the mismatch was exposed by the media, health secretary Beela Rajesh was replaced with the more experienced J. Radhakrishnan. The government also updated figures and published them with district wise details, showing the full impact of the pandemic. Yet Radhakrishnan’s writ remains curtailed, for the municipality health department was in charge of the Covid fight in Chennai, the state’s hotspot.
“There should be only one command centre, ideally the health secretary. Chennai Corporation is operating in a separate sphere. Though we have an excellent health infrastructure, the absence of clear political leadership, unlike in Kerala, has diluted our response,” says former health secretary R. Poornalingam. Indeed, the government had undermined the anti-Covid command structure by appointing senior IAS and IPS officials at the city, district and even zonal levels within Chennai, leading to multiple power centres.
To cover up its ineptitude, the political leadership sought to deflect the blame on the Centre, saying it had not received funds from Delhi. During every video conference with the prime minister, Palaniswami would demand Rs 3,000 crores. Only when Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman disclosed that Rs 6,600 crores had been given to Tamil Nadu to buy medical equipment did the state ministers quieten down.
Then there was the puerile attention-grabbing ßministers keen on making a show of spearheading relief distribution. “The craze of TN politicians for the limelight can be cited as a key reason for the state failing to tackle the pandemic,” admits a senior IAS officer. For example, rather than depositing the corona relief amount of Rs1,000 directly in bank accounts beneficiaries were made to line up to receive it, defeating the very idea of social distancing.
There was fumbling over lockdowns too. A four-day intense lockdown (during Centre’s lockdown 2.0) in April, with a one-day window to stock up, had resulted in a mad rush at shops, leading to further spread. The resultant heavy crowding at the Koyambedu vegetable market on April 24 turned it into a super spreader. When Chennai was subjected to a 12-day lockdown from June 19 it resulted in a veritable stampede towards the districts, and a spread of infection. The ePass system to control the movement of people was riddled with holes--genuine cases were rejected, while others procured fake passes with the collusion of the state’s notoriously corrupt bureaucracy.
State health secretary J. Radhakrishnan has assured that the response has been recalibrated. “The positivity rate will be high as we now undertake focussed testing…with 10,000 tests a day in Chennai alone. That is the reason for the high positivity of 23.2 per cent in the capital compared to five per cent or less in other districts,” he explained. But his hopeful estimate—that the state’s high recovery and discharge rates would improve as hospital beds are increased—would be realised if authorities learn from their grievous mistakes.
G.C. Shekhar in Chennai