Home / News / India /  ‘There aren’t any public health templates for handling covid’

MUMBAI : Maharashtra is one of the worst-affected states with almost 10,000 covid-19 cases. The state government is facing several challenges, including offering relief to a large number of migrant workers. It has, however, managed to stay ahead of other states in terms of controlling the infection rate. In an interview, state home minister Anil Deshmukh said safety remains a priority in efforts to curb the spread of the virus while it works on a plan to revive economic activity. Edited excerpts:

What steps have been taken to ensure the safety and security of jobless migrants, as well as the state’s own jobless population?

Even before the lockdown was declared, the state made its commitment to care for migrant labourers stuck in various parts of the state with 4,878 relief camps providing them with food and shelter. The migrants are being asked to stay back for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones, so that they don’t carry the infection back to their homes and villages. When conditions stabilize and train services resume, people will be able to travel. But, to ensure that the date of travel is not pushed further away, people should cooperate now.

Tablighi Jamaat members are being seen as the primary reason for the surge in covid cases in Maharashtra. Has the government been able to track down all of them?

Maharashtra’s home department prevented a congregation similar to the one held in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, which went on to become a covid-19 hotspot. Permission for the two-day religious event planned at Vasai, outside Mumbai, which was to take place before the one in Delhi, was cancelled on 6 March. Why didn’t the Delhi Police show such farsightedness and quicker reflexes like we did? The Delhi congregation couldn’t have happened without intelligence about the same.

Having said that, we were able to track nearly 1,400 who attended the congregation immediately, and sent them into quarantine. As many as 156 foreigners who attended the congregation have been charged and 15 cases have been registered. The foreigners who had come on a tourist visa and violated visa norms to attend the congregation have been sent to institutionalized quarantine facilities.

Despite the lockdown, how did DHFL promoters Kapil and Dheeraj Wadhawan, who have cases against them, travel as VVIPs? What action is being planned against the Wadhawans?

The travel ban breach was treated as one. Soon after it emerged on 9 April that 23 members of the Wadhawan family had reached Mahabaleshwar from Khandala on a pass issued by Amitabh Gupta, principal secretary (special), home department, Gupta was immediately sent on compulsory leave. The inquiry is complete and we are awaiting the detailed report. The Wadhwans were detained in institutional quarantine on a police watch. The local police reached out to both central agencies, the CBI and the ED, on 17 April, five days before their quarantine got over. The CBI finally responded nine days later and both the brothers were taken into custody.

Despite the extension of the lockdown, thousands of migrant labourers gathered to protest at Bandra, leading to a lathi charge. What led to the flow of such wrong information and public unrest?

It has already been established that a rumour was floated about train services resuming, and people gathered to find out. It did not help that some sections of the media overplayed their hand and made an internal railways communique available to the public, who thought that train services were resuming. The sudden unplanned announcement of the lockdown came from the Centre, but again the media is not asking the Centre questions. The crowds were dispersed immediately and the situation was brought under control, but some elements in the media didn’t stop giving a communal colour even to this episode.

How and when will the lockdown be lifted in the state?

This will obviously be considered in detail by a high-level committee headed by the CM. We want to ensure the transition is smooth and people are not inconvenienced. Citizens should look out for government instructions and adhere to these in their own interest, and in larger collective interest.

Many businesses are not being able to restart operations considering that a majority of their staff have either migrated back to their villages or are refusing to join work due to the fear of contracting covid-19. How will the government address this issue?

We will eventually work towards facilitating normalcy for trade and business. Right now, safety is the priority. We want the media to also highlight how nearly 850 people have also recovered in Maharashtra. We are working at reducing the rate of spread of the infection and this is beginning to bear results.

Each flashpoint, which bucks this trend, is a valuable lesson on the path ahead. The world over, there aren’t any public health templates on handling this issue. You have to also factor in our own sociocultural and socioeconomic milieu.


Anirudh Laskar

Anirudh Laskar is a senior editor at Mint, with 17 years of experience. He has reported on significant corporate matters including large mergers and acquisitions, India's emerging e-commerce sector and regulatory issues in the financial services industry. Based out of Mint’s Mumbai bureau, Anirudh has worked with Business Standard and The Telegraph before joining Mint in 2009.
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