Fears of a second wave

Commuters in a bus at Gandhipuram Mofussil Bus Terminus, Coimbatore, on September 1

The level of infection in the state is still high but with more establishments and businesses opening up in Unlock 4.0, the situation is likely to go out of control.

Tamil Nadu is bracing for a second wave is f Covid-19 infections because many more services and establishments have been opened up even though the first one shows no signs of abating. Since the pandemic outbreak in March, more than 7600 deaths have been recorded in the state. The number of new cases remain high, just short of 6,000 a day, which means that the first wave is still strong in the state.

A seeo-prevalence study in Chennai indicated that as much as 20 percent of the city’s population, which account for one-eighth of the state’s total population, could be infected. Anecdotal evidence, too, points to a massive jump in infection rates. In the past two days alone, 60 Covid positive cases were detected in an old age home on the southern outskirts of Chennai. In a Facebook post, which has independently confirmed, the organisation running it said that the infected woman were taken to three government hospitals.

Many prominent persons were in hospital. S.P. Balasubramaniyan, whose melodious voice has enthralled many generations of Indians is fighting for life at a private hospital. He is on the support of a ventilator and an extra corporeal membrane oxegenation machine (ECMO). The first Member of Parliament to fall victim to Covid infection is from Tamil Nadu-H.P. Vasanthakumar, a Congress MP from Kanyakumari and a businessman.

Opening up slowly

A mall in Thane being sanitised on September 2 ahead of reopening after the authorities eased some restrictions as part of Unlock 4.

In a bid to prevent the second wave of infection, the Thackeray government proceeds with caution in easing lockdown restrictions.

When Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced in August that the lockdown would not be lifted fully in Maharashtra, he was repeating the State’s by now well established policy of taking it slow when it came to easing lockdown restrictions. In Maharashtra’s ‘Mission Begin Again’ phase 4, the lockdown will continue to be in place for the whole of September. The decision is based on what is largely seen to be a successful plan to combat the pandemic.

The thinking of Mantralaya, the state’s administrative headquarters, is that it is better to proceed slowly rather than impose a second lockdown. Thackeray spelt out his government’s strategy on August 27 after inaugurating a jumbo Covid-19 facility in Pune. He said:” If we relax and believe that the virus will now be under control, we might have to face the second wave. Those countries which believed that “abhi ho gaya, humne maat kardi”( we have defeated the pandemic) were all proved wrong as they saw a second wave.” Besides, he said, the belief that a person who has tested positive will not be infected agains has been proved wrong.

Test of the times

At a protest against the UGC’s decision to hold final year exams, in New Delhi on July 21.

The Centre’s decision to hold final year examinations amid the raging pandemic displays a complete lack of senstivity to student’s concerns, the digital divide and the spiralling cases.

On August 28, in a judgement with far-reaching consequences, the Supreme Court upheld guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission(UGC) on July 6 directing institutions of higher learning to conduct examinations for final semester students by September 30.

This came on the heels of an August 17 order by the apex court for the conduct of the national eligibility cum entrance test (NEET) for medical courses and the joint entrance examination for engineering programmes in the first week of September. The Supreme Court gave the go-ahead despite a request from six chief minister of opposition ruled states for a review of its order.

While approving the new guidelines, a bench comprising Justices Ashok Buushan. M.R. Shah and R. Subhash Reddy observed that the UGC’s objective was to ensure that all universities follow a uniform academic calendar and that final/terminal examinations were held. The UGC’s revised guidelines, which were a complete reversal of its advisory of April 29, decreed that examinations be conducted in offline (pen and paper), online or blended(online plus offline) modes while observing the Covid-19 protocol.

Seesaw battle

Chief Minister Arvind kejriwal along with health minister Satyendra Jain inaugurating a 200 bed COVID hospital at Ambedkar Nagar in New Delhi on August 9.

While Maharashtra and Delhi appear to have contained the pandemic, there are fears that the virus will gain the upper hand in the southern states. In Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, people’s and the authorities attention has shifted to politics. A roundup from the battlegrounds.

Public celebrations in the national capital on August 15 were muted owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Desperate to get back to the normal life after the fatigue induced by the lockdown of three months, some people welcomed Independence Day with gusto on their terraces, flying kites and socialising with family and friends.

But Delhi should not get complacent, warned Dr Srinivas Rajkumar T of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences(AIIMS) in Delhi. “We are in a better situation than before, since mid-July. Now there are around 1,000 cases consistently everyday. This will continue but infection will spread through new demographic shifts, when people go to the office and malls or resume social activities, or when the elderly get exposed, which will lead to isolates spikes.”

The AIIMS administration had sent the senior resident doctor in the department of psychiatry a show cause notice after he criticised in a tweet the substandard quality of the personal protective equipment (PPE), provided to AIIMS health care workers.

Puja in the time of pandemic

The Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, which was among three historic temples chosen by the Tamil Nadu government for live streaming of worship during the Covid-induced lockdown.

Devotional Hinduism has been quick to use technology in its chase of spirituality, with worshippers staying safe at home while performing their rituals in coincidence with a global community of devotees. To see these practices as being seperate from the political project of consolidating the nation on religious lines would be a mistake.

Once the coronavirus recedes into history, we will remember the pandemic of 2020 as ushering in a new era of digital darshan’s of virtual gods that stream in through Microsoft windows more steadily than through the temple doors.

The beginning of the lockdown in March across most of the world coincided with important days on the ritual calendar of nearly all faiths, and all of them turned to the internet of worship. Catholics got to see and hear, in real time, Pope Francis deliver his Easter sermon in the deserted St. Petres Square; Muslims joined in Ramzan prayers streamed from mosques; Jews participated in Passover seders over Zoom; while Hindus got to participate remotely in Ram Navami celebrations, complete with bhajans and aartis. Virtual darshan’s and aartis became a daily affair for many, as did the daily masses and calls to prayer from countless churches and mosques. Online scripture reading groups sprung up, and sadly, online funeral services thrived.

Timeline worries

An Anganwadi in Kagithapattarai, Vellore district, Tamil Nadu. The NEP proposes to formalise Early childhood care and Education “no later than 2030.”

The time frames of several provisions of National Education Policy 2020, designed in a pre pandemic situation, make it difficult to figure out their implications in a rapidly changing, unpredictable world.

The National Education Policy(NEP)2020, approved by the Union cabinet and announced on July 31, has evoked a variety of responses. Immediately afterwards, Education secretary Amit Khare announced speedy implementations of its provisions that would not have immediate financial implications. This, in itself, raises questions. If educational institution mobilises and/or are taken over by those who can afford to do so, the ongoing process of privitisation will probably proceed at faster speed.

Looming confrontation

June 29, 2019: U.S. President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jingping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit on Osaka, Japan.

The U.S. and China seem to be moving relentlessly towards a serious conflict, and it can be detrimental to India’s national interest in the long run if gets caught in the middle.

At a time when most of the world remains focusses on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the United States and China are engaged in a quarrel over a host of issues that threatens to get out of control and entangle the international community. The Donald Trump’s administration inability to contain the uncontrolled spread of the pandemic in the U.S. has prompted the targeting of China. With President Trump facing an uphill task in the 2020 presidential election, his strategist seem to have calculated that his only route to victory is blaming China for the pandemic and the economic ills that have happened in the country in the last four years. In a racist rant, in a recent statement, Trump accused the Chinese government “of concealing the virus and unleashing it upon the world”, without as usual providing any evidence. The U.S. and China have been embroiled in trade disputes for quite some time.

The introduction of new National security laws by the Chinese government in Hong Kong, after protesters there made the important global financial hub virtually ungovernable, has led to the U.S. and the United Kingdom imposing more sanctions in China. Trump ordered an end to the preferential trade status enjoyed by Hong Kong. The “Hong Kong Autonomy Act”, unanimously passed by the U.S. Congress in early July, has given approval for the sanctioning of senior Hong Kong officials and banks.

Wider spread

Patients discharged after being treated for coronavirus infection at the Covid care centre in Jalandhar on July 3.

Since mid June, the positivity rate has doubled in the state, with COVID-19 cases, the majority of which were concentrated in the cities of Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jalandhar, being reported from rural areas.

With the easing of lockdown restrictions, Punjab is not only confronted with a surge in COVID-19 cases or an increase in the positivity rate but also the spread of the cases over a wider area. The majority of the cases were initially reported from the cities of Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jalandhar. The disease has now spread to Patiala, Mohali, Hoshiarpur and Ferozepur. Relatively smaller numbers are being reported from Moga, Pathankot, Fazilka, Bhatinda, Mansa and Fatehgarh Sahib. What this indicates is that the rural areas of the state, that is, the agricultural belt, which was hitherto considered relatively safe, is now as much prone to COVID-19 as the urban areas are.

On July 5, Ludhiana once again reported the maximum number of fresh cases. Of the state’s 175 new cases reported on that day, 70 were from Ludhiana, 26 from Patiala and 16 from Mohali. Chandigarh reported five new cases, taking the city’s tally to 492, and one death. It was, however, the cases reported from Fazilka, Sangrur and Mansa that set the alarm bells ringing. Sangrur, infact, became a new hotspot towards the end of June, reporting 81 fresh cases in 24 hours on June 25. This put a question mark on the state’s bid to bring back migrant labourers from their hometown and villages to resume economic activities and presented a clear danger of attempts to open up the economy too soon.

Infrastructure in a shambles

Migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and their families arriving back in Ahmedabad on July 1. Many of those who went back home to Uttar Pradesh at the start of the lockdown have started returning to cities in other states in search of work.

The rising Covid-19 figures in Uttar Pradesh point to the debilitating effect of the state’s poor public health infrastructure on the efforts to deal with the pandemic.

Throughout June all Covid-19 monitoring agencies of the Uttar Pradesh government recorded a steady rise in the number of infections and fatalities. The week comprising the last two days of June and the first five days of July registered an all time high in weekly surge- 5,560 new patients and 125 deaths, accounting for 20 percent of the total caseload in the state and 16 percent of the total number of fatalities respectively. As many as 1,155 cases came up on July 5, the last day of that week. The total number of cases as of July 5, was 27,707, and 785 deaths. On both counts, Uttar Pradesh is fifth among the state’s affected by Covid-19.

These figures along with hundreds of individual case studies on the medical, social and economic impact of the pandemic, makes it starkly clear that the overall situation in the country’s most populous state is worsening by the day. They also underscore the many failures and deficiencies of Yogi Adityanath’s government in handling the crisis and relating social and economic issues.

Warrior’s woes

Accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers conducting a door to door survey on the COVID-19 situation, in New Delhi on July 2.

The Covid crisis has increased the work pressure on National Health Mission Staff, but their is no effort to make their compensation proportionate with their efforts.

In the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi encouraged the nation to bang utensils and clap as a mark of appreciation for health workers fighting the pandemic. Perhaps that made National Health Mission employees feel that their work was being recognised at last. When one Chief Minister declared that he would double the salaries of NHM workers in his state, Rihan Raza, all-India president of the NHM employees union, declined the offer politely. The health workers were after all doing their duty, he reasoned. Today, he regrets his decision.

Only a tiny percentage of NHM staff are permanent employees. The mission is run on the principles of incentives and conditionalities, which militates against the goal of good health outcomes and is demotivating for its workforce. A health ministry document links the allocation of NHM funds to state with performance based conditionalities.