Spike in COVID-19 cases due to aggressive testing, our health teams visiting every nook and corner, says Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani
This is a critical scenario, and we are being cautious in giving any kind of further relaxation, over and above the permissions given to industrial units and businesses, says Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani.
Gujarat was one of the last states in India to record its first coronavirus infection, in the month of March, but earned the dubious distinction of recording the highest single-day fatality due to the virus — 49 — on Tuesday. The positive cases now stand at 6,245, with 368 deaths.
To add to the woes, scores of migrant workers came out on the streets on Tuesday in the state’s commercial hubs — Ahmedabad and Surat — following rumours about bus services to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
As the infections and fatalities spike up in the state, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, in an exclusive interview with Firstpost talked about his administrative preparedness in dealing with the advancing pandemic, use of plasma therapy, third phase of lockdown, the migrant labourer-crisis, restarting economic activities in the state and more. Edited excerpts follow:
What’s Gujarat government’s approach towards lockdown 3.0?
We have adopted a two-pronged approach. First, to ensure the safety and health of our citizens, for which we identified the hotspots and areas with fewer cases. Hotspot areas were sealed and the movement was restricted under the cluster containment strategy.
The second approach ensures sufficient availability of essential goods and services in the state. We’ve not let this lockdown affect our supplies of food grains, fruit, vegetables, milk, medicines and other medical supplies, and these are available in sufficient quantities across the state.
Through a strong supply-chain mechanism, we have ensured that the shelves of shop-owners have enough supplies and people are able to access them. While the citizens of Gujarat are cooperating, our police personnel are on the alert to maintain law and order and enforce the lockdown strictly. On the other hand, our lead COVID warriors — doctors, medical staff and police — are fiercely protecting the infected people.
We’re going very strict with red zones and continue to maintain lockdown in hotspot districts of Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Gandhinagar. However, following MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) guidelines, certain relaxation has been given to small businesses and standalone shops in red, orange and green zones.
Botad, Bopal, Khambhat, Bareja, Godhra and Umreth, which fall in the red zone, have not been provided with any other liberties except those related to essential items.
Jamnagar and Junagadh Municipal Corporations, and 156 other municipalities will be provided necessary permissions to restart industries and units in accordance with the Centre’s guidelines. Relaxation in the green zone will be as per the MHA guidelines, keeping social distancing and safety in mind. No movement of any kind shall be allowed from 7 pm to 7 am in any of the zones in Gujarat. Licensed liquor shops and tobacco shops shall remain closed in all the zones across the state in order to prevent crowding of people.
This is a critical scenario, and we are being cautious in giving any kind of further relaxation, over and above the permissions given to industrial units and businesses.
Gujarat had very few COVID-19 positive cases and fatalities initially. The first case was reported on 19 March, almost one-and-half months after India’s first case. How did it become the second state after Maharashtra in the number of cases (6,245 so far) so rapidly? And why does Ahmedabad account for the bulk of infections and deaths in Gujarat?
Right, the first case was registered on 19 March, but the government had already started taking preventive measure since early March, keeping in mind the inflow of travellers in Gujarat throughout the year.
As a pre-emptive measure, we started thermal screening at our airports and any traveller returning from a COVID-19 affected country was closely monitored. Around 30,000 people were home quarantined after being screened. Suspected cases were examined and only a few were found positive. This is the primary reason why Gujarat did not witness a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases immediately after the first case was reported.
The increase in the number of cases started happening post the Tablighi Jamat incident. As soon as we got to know about the infected people entering Gujarat, we started identifying them but by then, they had already come in contact with their friends and family in large numbers. In fact, a majority of the cases from Ahmedabad are from residential areas of the people, who had attended the Markaz event in Delhi.
At present, the spike in cases is because of the aggressive testing strategy. Our health department teams are going to every nook and corner, be it hotspot areas or infected areas of all the districts, to conduct these tests. Hence, the number is proportionate to the density of the population in each of these areas.
Surat also has emerged as a major hotspot...
Surat is now under control and 20 to 25 cases per day are being reported. Besides the factor that triggered infection in Ahmedabad, there is the Rana community in a locality called Maan Darwaja in Surat, among whom coronavirus got spread and led to the spike in numbers there.
What steps has your government taken to contain the fast spread of Coronavirus in the state?
We were almost the last state to see the first case for the virus, but the precautionary measures had been implemented when we got to know that this deadly virus had entered India.
Once we had our first case reported, we formed a core committee and discussed the strategy in detail with a conclusion to start our next step that was the identification of the potential cases through testing and their subsequent treatment and cure of the infection. At present, we are conducting more than 3,000 tests per day, and our test per million capacity is also increasing gradually.
For example, we put 750 teams of health officials for seven consecutive days in the hotspot areas of Ahmedabad and a team of 666 health officials in Surat for three days to conduct door-to-door tests and awareness drive in the hotspot areas.
Once the patients are tested and identified, we take them to the dedicated COVID-19 hospitals. We were the first state to open COVID-19 hospitals with a capacity of 2,200 beds (altogether) in four major cities in March itself. At present, Gujarat has 61 COVID-19 hospitals, including 31 private hospitals, with a capacity of 10,500 beds with 1,500 ICU beds and 1,500 ventilators. Treatment expenses are borne by the state and soon, we will expand the capacity to 22,500 beds, including 10,000 beds in COVID-19 Care Centres.
We are using drones to monitor the situation and anyone found violating the rules is punished. The use of a drone has further helped us in controlling the movement of people while giving real-time updates.
Despite having such an advanced system of micro-level tracking and monitoring every sector through your pet project — CM Dash Board, what’s the reason behind this sudden spike in COVID-19 cases?
Let me describe the mechanism behind the CM dashboard. The tool works on the input of thousands of data points, which are collected and processed at the level of districts and the departments. However, pandemic requires people’s cooperation and support. The spike happened because there were cases of Tablighi Jamaat members hiding their travel history. While on one side, we are aggressively testing in the infected areas, on another side, we also have helpline numbers for inquiries related to COVID-19 and for online consultations for people who have symptoms or even a doubt of the infection.
At the same time, the CM dashboard has been of utmost importance during this lockdown period. I have been conducting all administrative tasks and meetings using CM dashboard during this lockdown. Through this platform, I’m regularly in touch with the Corona warriors, who are working on the front line, like doctors, medical staff and police, and with district collectors, on the status of infection in each district.
What has the government done for migrant labourers and workforce stranded in the state?
The lockdown across the country was imposed at short notice, and the movement of people was restricted. Though the lockdown has caused inconvenience to the people, we all know it is for everybody’s welfare. As Surat is one of the fastest-growing cities in India, it has a large number of migrant workers from across the country. The government had communicated to the district administration, municipal corporations, business houses and social organisations to take care of all the people who were not from our state and to provide them with all necessary help.
I am proud of our local administration which has made special arrangements for more than 1.25 lakh labourers in Surat. We have distributed free rice, pulses, sugar and salt to these labourers, under our state’s scheme Anna Brahma Yojana meant for the poor, deprived, and helpless sections of the society. We’ve also covered those migrant workers who don’t have ration cards. Till now more than three crore food packets have been distributed to the people in need, including poor.
Very recently, we have also made provisions for the workers to return to their home states in case they want to. However, now with the opening up of industries and labourers getting work and wages, I hope the movement will be less.
Your government has roped in teachers of government-run primary schools to trace migrant workers and provide them with free ration. How far has this move been successful?
As part of the government machinery, the teachers are also rendering their services. This has been very successful as with the help of teachers acting as volunteers we could reach more people in a short span of time. This step ensured that no one in Gujarat sleeps hungry during this tough time. We all are in this together.
What are your plans to restart economic activities without inviting the risk of spreading COVID-19 and how would you manage social distancing at work? Are enough masks and protective gear available for the industrial workers?
After the Centre announced certain relaxation in the lockdown rules post 20 April, the core committee came up with a plan to ease the lockdown in a phased manner. We decided to grant permission to all those industrial units and businesses falling outside the limits of municipalities and municipal corporations and containment zones. We also provided the freedom to labourers to work for a 12-hour shift with additional remuneration for extra hours. The export units outside the containment zone with prior export orders were also granted permission to operate. Based on the MHA guidelines, industrial units are expected to follow certain Standard Operating Procedures to ensure safe and hygienic atmosphere at the workplace. The norms of social distancing are also being followed stringently.
As the number of cases was gradually rising in the country, we held meetings with the key manufacturers of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals in the state. We asked them to increase their productivity and ensure uninterrupted supplies. The government is regularly procuring these items, including N95 masks, PPE kits and protection gear, after checking the product quality. We’re also manufacturing Hydroxychloroquine medicine and we are comfortable with our stock. Gujarat is the first state to manufacture ventilators locally. After successful testing, we have placed an order of 1,000 units of the ventilator with a Rajkot-based firm.
Apart from this, after the Centre’s decision to relax the lockdown rules, we have till now opened around 40,000 industrial units where more than 5 lakh workers are back at work. At the same time, more than 30,000 people are working at private construction sites.
Are Gujarat hospitals going for plasma therapy to treat COVID-19 patients?
We’ve asked the Centre and ICMR to guide us on this. In Gujarat, this therapy has been tested on a patient and ICMR is also conducting experiments. If they succeed and we get a nod from them, we’ll implement it in our hospitals.
Recently, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi urged your government to relocate 6,000 fishermen from Andhra Pradesh who had got stranded along the Gujarat coast and were facing poor hygiene and sanitation facilities...
We’ve sent all of them back home safely. In fact, the Andhra Pradesh government delayed it for a week, otherwise, these fishermen would have reached home earlier.
Will you open up one of your major tourist destinations – Statue of Unity and the adjoining 18 tourist spots—that record more than 30,000 footfalls on weekends, once the lockdown is over?
The lockdown shall be lifted in a measured and phased manner. Our first priority is to safeguard lives and livelihood. Tourists destinations, places of mass gatherings etc. shall be opened at an appropriate time and we are not in a hurry to open them without weighing all the options.
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