Delhi government failed to curb Covid-19 spread
By Lekshmi Parameswaran
November 20, 2020
It has been almost a year since the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way governments look at policy formulation and implementation. The short-term goals of governments all over the world that have governed its policies so far have been replaced by preparedness and better planning to bring in control an unprecedented situation. Yet, the Delhi government led by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal stands out for its oddity in repeatedly being unawares of the ground realities. The government has time and again shown how ill equipped it is to handle the rising number of cases despite having enough time to draw lessons from how the rest of the world was handling the pandemic.
The multiple periods of national lockdown announced in the country should have ideally given the government enough time to ensure that there were adequate healthcare facilities in place to cater to every patient diagnosed with Covid-19. Instead, the capital saw patients running from one hospital to another in the hope of getting treatment and a government which looked clueless about its duties and responsibilities.
Initially, in April 2020 when the cases were increasing and the country was still in a lockdown, the Kejriwal government had announced a 5T plan - testing, tracing, treatment, teamwork and tracking to bring the situation under control. It was a policy measure that could have worked and even achieved its stated objectives to a large extent. Yet on the days that followed when the country has opening up slowly, what came to the fore was a government that had not only failed to implement its own policies but had also lost precious time in putting in place the requisite infrastructure that could have at least saved lives. If this wasn’t all, the Delhi government went a step further to completely overlook the seriousness of the challenge they were faced with and pander to vote-bank politics.
In the first phase, when the failures of the government to protect its citizens, started becoming clearer, chief minister Kejriwal made a startling announcement which kept aside the hospital beds in the state only for Delhi residents. This decision which went against all the constitutional ethos was ultimately overruled by the Lt Governor of Delhi Anil Baijal, but it exposed a government and a party that could see political opportunism in one of the biggest tragedies that the world is witnessing.
Closely on the heels of this announcement came another which is perhaps responsible for the uncontrolled spread of the virus. Despite having ample time to study the coronavirus in totality, the Delhi government insisted that “asymptomatic people should not insist on getting tested”, because if they do, the system will collapse. Today those very people who were denied access to testing facilities have spread it far and wide.
Then came the app, Delhi Corona, which the Delhi government launched to help people track the number of beds available. A few months after the much-celebrated launch, the app has faded into obscurity and is remembered for the gross irregularities in data that was reported. To mask the many failures of the government, its next strategy was to go behind a private hospital like the Ganga Ram Hospital and six other testing labs to failing to comply with the procedural norms in testing that were laid down by the Indian Council for Medical Research. The question that was never asked is the Delhi government’s own accountability in ensuring availability of enough beds equipped with ventilators and enough testing facilities for Delhi’s 1.9 crore population.
Unfortunately, even with sufficient time and with the threat of another peak looming large, there are only 205 intensive care unit beds with ventilators available in the city and in at least 60 hospitals there are no vacancies. The ironical part here is that the figures are drawn from the data published by the Delhi government in its online corona dashboard.
What is even more disturbing is the way the government seems to be changing its stance of different policy measures and how other agencies and authorities are forced to intervene to reverse the situation. On 12 November 2020, the Delhi High Court called out the Delhi government for relaxing Covid-19 norms amid rising pollution levels. In the light of the then ongoing festive season, the court termed the situation in the national capital as “alarming” and called for strict compliance measures. The Delhi chief minister instead of acting on the directives of the court chose to hold a press conference the very next day where he claimed the situation will be under control in about a week’s time and blamed the spike in cases solely on pollution.
On 15 November, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had to step in to take stock of a situation that was clearly getting out of hand for the Delhi government to handle. In the meeting that he chaired, the decision was taken to provide hundreds of more ICU beds for Covid-19 patients in Delhi, testing to be doubled and for doctors from central paramilitary forces to be flown in. Despite the urgency of the issue, the following day, Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain declared that the Covid-19 infection has passed its peak in Delhi and there will be no harsh measures from the government’s part that will affect normalcy. This announcement was made when on 6 November 2020, the number of Covid-19 cases in Delhi had crossed the 7000 mark and the city’s Delhi's average seven-day positivity rate stood at 11.5%, as against the national average of 4.3%.Political gimmicks once again took centre stage over swift policy decisions and actions.
Considering the festive season and the crowd that would be there on the streets, the most practical decision for the Delhi government would have been to ensure that wearing of masks in public places and social distancing were made mandatory. Instead, the city saw streets and public transport being overcrowded and there were little efforts from the side of the authorities to make certain that there was enough awareness among the populace to strictly follow the Covid-19 norms and in places where the rules were being flouted there were strict compliance measures. The Kejriwal-led government once again chose to sleep through a crucial time period.
It woke up from its deep slumber only when only NitiAayog published its report on 17 November 2020 that the cases in Delhi could reach 500 per million in the coming weeks. The government suddenly approached the Centre to give them permission to impose lockdowns on markets that are becoming Covid-19 hotspots and also made it mandatory to wear masks in public places, failing which a fine of Rs 2000 will be imposed. The first order was withdrawn hours after its announcement when the government realised that public opinion was against the move. the government once again put populist measures over enforcing of stringent measures meant to save lives.
Subsequently, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also issued notice to the Delhi government and Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfaremaking serious allegations about the difficulties that the general public is put through in Delhi due to non-availability of beds in the hospitals for COVID-19 patients and insufficient number of tests. The data provided by the complainant made some startling revelations. It stated that out of the 38 government Health Institutions or hospitals, 33 are not accepting Covid-19 patients. Which means effectively only five institutions have been designated in Delhi to treat the rising surge of Covid-19 patients. Coupled with this when the fact that the numbers from the crematoriums often do not match the official figures given out by Delhi government is taken into account, it is clear that the Delhi government’s only strategy to contain the pandemic is to blatantly spread lies and fudge the numbers. Perhaps this is what led the Supreme Court of India to observe in early June that Delhi had miserably failed to deal with the pandemic and the “condition of patients in Delhi hospitals were worse than animals.”
In the midst of all this, it was surprising to note that a much-touted policy measure of the Delhi government, the Mohalla clinic faded into near oblivion. Going by the claims made by Kejriwal during the election period, these clinics could have played a major role in testing and tracing. Yet, there was not a word about these clinics from the government and they remained non-utilised. And so did most of the healthcare infrastructure that a city like Delhi had access to compared to other parts of the country that do not even have primary healthcare facilities. The lack of any serious review of the ground situation and also the failure to look at the larger picture and strengthen the public health infrastructure which also includes proper sanitation are indeed worrying. The pandemic has undoubtedly exposed the weakness of the Delhi government but most importantly the Delhi model which chief minister Kejriwal proudly mentioned in the initial months of the virus outbreak has left a lasting pointer for what not to do in governance. This is indeed a model that will be cited for years to come, although for reasons that were not envisioned when it was first formulated.