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Friday, April 16, 2021

How Maharashtra became a ticking COVID-19 time bomb

Coronavirus cases in the country have reached a staggering number over 250,000 on Monday. According to the latest figures by the Ministry of Health, India now has 257,451 COVID-19 cases of which 124,232 have recovered while 7,208 have lost their lives already. Maharashtra, which leads the national tally with the highest number of COVID-19 cases overtook even China’s record by crossing the 85,000-mark on June 7, the Ministry of Health also confirmed the same by updating the state’s tally to 85,975 on May 8. Is Maharashtra a ticking COVID-19 time bomb?


The numbers speak volume

According to the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus tally, China has reported around 84,191 positive cases till date. The other states that follow Maharashtra in the list of increasing cases are Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. Of the total cases in the state, Mumbai’s tally was over 48,000 and the death toll is over 1500. After Mumbai, Thane reported the most number of cases at 13,014 with active cases at 7846 and total deaths at 331.

The state public health department, however, had on June 3 said that the rate of increase of cases in Maharashtra has been reducing in the span from May 1 to June 1, 2020. It added that it has observed that on June 1, it has come down to less than the national average as well (4.74%). “On 1 May, rate of increase of cases was at 7.76% while on 1 June it stood at 4.15% On the other hand, the rate of doubling stood at 9.27 days on 1 May, and has increased to 17.35 days on 1 June,” it had said. “As per the guidance from the Government of India, cluster containment action plan is being implemented in places where clusters of patients have been found in the state. There are 3654 active containment zones in the state currently. Out of 5,51,647 laboratory samples, 85,975 have been tested positive (15.58%) for COVID-19 until today,” the state’s public health department had said in a press statement.


Why a ticking time bomb?

What easily makes Maharashtra a ticking time bomb amid the pandemic is because it is home to Asia’s largest slum Dharavi in Mumbai. Social distancing is a myth in Dharavi. If you may ask why? On the 613 hectares of land that the slums are based out of, over 15 lakh people stay in this urban slum, with five to eight people sharing a 100 sq ft of room. Dr Shrinivas Chavan of JJ Hospital told the New Indian Express that as per the WHO norms, one person should stay in minimum 20 sq ft of area. It is less than 10 sq ft in Dharavi. “In Mumbai, Dharavi has a large number of TB patients because of a high-density population. It is easy to quarantine any VIP patient, but not in Dharavi. Therefore, Dharavi is a ticking time bomb,” warned Dr Chavan.
At an April 20 virtual and online panel discussion, one of Mumbai’s most distinguished residents we know of shared his concerns about Dharavi and eventually the city’s failure to build affordable housing. “For the first time, the close proximity and low-value structures that we have built are the cause of new problems,” Tata Group chairman emeritus Ratan Tata said. “The past few months have taught us that we’re suffering from close proximity.” He also called for a “re-examination of what we consider to be acceptable standards in terms of quality of life.”

Seeking citizen’s support and cooperation in the “war against a virus”,  Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray reminded the people that the situation is akin to the 1965 and 1971 wars where the public used to respond to sirens. “During the war, soldiers were fighting against the enemy. Now, doctors, nurses and medical fraternity are fighting for us. We have to help them by staying at home and preventing the virus from spreading,” Thackeray had said.

A matter of concern

The concern is quite a revelation as Dharavi’s chawls have considered and known to be a breeding ground for disease for decades now. Natural epidemics have swept through the slums since as far back as 1896 when the plague wiped out nearly 50 per cent of its residents. The place is nothing but a nightmare for healthcare providers, who need to take extra precaution during this pandemic. Dysentery, cholera and typhoid epidemics are quite common in there, however, ironically, the COVID-19 outbreak originated in Dharavi not in the matchbox shanties that are of concern, but in a multi-storeyed hou­­sing complex in Dr Baliga Nagar, known to be the slum’s poshest pocket. Since after the outbreak, the disease has now spiralled through the slum pockets, Shastri Nagar, Mukund Nagar, Murugan Chawl, Indira Chawl, Dhanwada Chawl, Social Nagar, Janata Society, PMGP Colony, Kalyan Wadi, Rajiv Gandhi Chawl, Nehru Chawl, Gulmohar Chawl. Not a single space has been spared.

Dharavi Slum Covid 19 Testing
Mumbai/India – April 9, 2020: A doctor treats his patient at Dharavi slum during the nationwide lockdown due to coronavirus outbreak. Image: Shutterstock.com

Dharavi’s thriving business hub, its informal economy and its vibrant businesses of pottery, leather, garment and plastic recycling that gen­erate an estimated $1 billion (Rs 7,600 crore) worth of business every year, have all been devastated. The shops lining the slum’s business district — 90 Feet Road, are all closed. If you visit the area, you would notice heaps of plastic pellets sitting outside recycling units.

A glimmer of hope

However, there still seems to be some kind of hope left for Dharavi. It has not recorded a single death related to the COVID-19 since June 2 and 939 of the 1,899 patients have recovered so far, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials have told news outlets. Officials said on June 7 that 34 people had tested positive for the Coronavirus on June 1 and that the number has now come down to 10 in Dharavi. “Dharavi has not reported a single death in the last six days, which is the first major indicator that we are on the right track. The number of people getting discharged is also increasing,” Kiran Dighavkar, assistant municipal commissioner of G northward of BMC, said on Sunday, according to news agency PTI. Dighavkar also stated that 939 of the 1,899 COVID positive patients have recovered. “Dharavi area has reported 71 deaths so far. But the real change is (reflected) in the daily testing of samples. A total of 34 people had tested positive for coronavirus on June 1 which has now come down to 10,” he added.

Dighavkar had stated that Dharavi has reported a lower number of cases because of timely screening and testing of suspected cases in the area as well as the activation of fever clinics. “With the help of fever clinics, we could identify the people showing symptoms similar to that of coronavirus infection. We isolated them immediately which helped in either containing further transmission of the virus or spreading any kind of infection from those who are feeling unwell,” he added.

Dharavi had reported its first COVID positive case in April after the initial lockdown was imposed at the end of March. According to Bombay Municipal Corporation officials, the large scale exodus of people during the consequent lockdown could have also contributed to the lower number of Coronavirus cases. “Dharavi offers jobs to hundreds of thousands of people. With continued extensions to the lockdown, a sizeable number of people have left the slum for their homes. This helped us in ensuring physical distancing to some extent,” an official was quoted as saying by PTI.

We do not know what the upcoming days will bring for Asia’s largest slum. We can only wait and see.

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