Chennai’s famed wholesale market, said to be Asia’s biggest for fruit and vegetable, has emerged as the latest super-spreader of the novel coronavirus, leading to a spurt in the number of cases not just in the capital city but also in the adjoining districts.
The failure of the authorities to regulate the traffic of retail vegetable vendors in and out of the huge market is the reason for the spread of the virus, health officials said.
The market complex is spread over an area of 295 acres and consists of about 3,100 shops, including more than 1,000 wholesale shops and 2,000 retail shops.
The CMDA, which runs the complex, and Chennai Corporation were slow to react to the massive crowds that showed up every day between 6 am and 12 noon – the trading hours – during phase one and two of the nationwide lockdown.
It was only during the latter phase of the second lockdown that retail shops were closed and shifted across various bus terminals that were not operating anyway. Similarly, the flower and fruits wholesalers have also been directed to shift to another location in the city.
The result -- during the last three days alone at least 63 people in Chennai who had tested positive were found to have gone to the Koaymbedu market. Just two retail vendors, who had gone to the wholesale market, were found to have infected 24 people belonging to a single locality in Ashok Nagar. Retail vegetable vendors across the city have now come under scrutiny and are being tested vigorously.
“Unfortunately in spite of constant campaigns, we found that at least 30 per cent of the sellers and buyers at the market not wearing face masks. And there was absolutely no social distancing. The traders said they were unprepared for the huge influx,” observed Relief Commissioner J. Radhakrishnan and nodal officer for Covid-19 control in Chennai. The city police who tried to enforce some discipline gave up after it became impossible to handle the crowd following the first week.
On Sunday, authorities in Cuddalore and Villupuram districts discovered that many people, who worked in the Koyambedu market as loaders and returned home, had picked up the virus. While Villupuram recorded 33 cases on Sunday and Cuddalore 12 – all with Koyambedu connection – the authorities identified and isolated more than 600 persons in these two districts who had been to the market during the last one week.
“The market has emerged as a hotspot and was spreading the virus far and wide as it is the nerve centre for vegetable supply for Chennai. At times we were left wondering if this is a vegetable wholesale market or a corona distribution centre,” rued Thangam Selvaraj,” president of the wholesale traders association. He admitted that there was resistance amongst the traders to decentralise the market and establish it in different spots to reduce the crowds. “Yes, the move will throw up practical difficulties. But since it is a matter of life and death we are convincing our trader members to co-operate with the authorities,” said Selvaraj.
Learning from the Koaymbedu experience, district collectors in the state have been advised to split and relocate the weekly central markets for vegetable in large towns to various locations. “Only if we decentralise and follow safety measures we can reduce the spread of the disease,” said Radhakrishnan.