Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his ministry are in panic as they have suddenly woken up to the realisation that they have wasted the lockdown days and did not augment health infrastructure in the city adequately enough. And they are worried that their unpreparedness is there for all of us to see.
The panic was visible when Kejriwal announced that only Delhi citizens could get themselves treated at Delhi government hospitals. Soon, Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal reversed the order. Immediately thereafter, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia attempted to scare residents of the city by stating that the number of COVID-19 cases in the city would reach 5.5 lakh and at least 80,000 beds would be required to provide treatment to Delhi residents and those coming from other states. Both of them wilfully forgot that the duty of a leader is to unite people in times of a crisis and not turn people against one another.
There should have been no need for panic, had the lockdown been used to ramp up medical infrastructure in the city. Delhi has 57,000 hospital beds, of which 13,200 hospital beds are in Central Government institutions, around 3,500 under Municipal Corporations and 38 hospitals with 11,000 beds under the Delhi government. The remaining 29,000 beds, more than 50% of the total, are in private hospitals.
On June 10, after a meeting held by Baijal and attended by Sisodia, Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain and chief secretary Vijay Dev, it was announced that Pragati Maidan, Talkatora Indoor Stadium, Thyagaraj Indoor Stadium, Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and Dhyanchand National Stadium were likely to be used as makeshift hospitals.
The only catch is this was announced even as far back as March 30 and again announced on June 1. The Sports Authority of India had handed over the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to the Delhi government for using it as a quarantine facility. The Sports Ministry had announced on March 22 that facilities under SAI across the country would be made available for use as quarantine facilities. The order for this was signed by the District Magistrate Harleen Kaur, who is also the chairperson of the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA, South East).
So, the question is that if the stadium was handed over in March, why was it not converted into a makeshift quarantine and hospital facility?
Just as the government has delayed the setting up of temporary COVID-19 wards, they did not begin to hire nurses and support staff despite realising the shortage in many Delhi government hospitals. An entire COVID-19 ward with almost 30 patients is manned by 2 nurses wearing personal protection equipment on rotation. Most often there would be just two support staff for five wards.
It was only after a TV channel aired the horrific condition in a COVID-19 ward, that the government decided to act. On June 13, the Delhi government issued a notification to hire close to 800 nurses who had cleared the examination in 2019.
In most of the Delhi government hospitals, the sanitation and support staff work on contract basis through private companies. It was only on June 13 that the outsourced agencies were ordered to give numbers of supervisors who will provide immediate assistance to nursing officers in each shift.
After 83 days of the lockdown, the Delhi government announced on June 5 that oximeters would be distributed to all patients under home quarantine. The government was supposed to begin distribution within two days of the announcement. However, 10 days later, patients are yet to receive the device. An oximeter is a device which checks oxygen levels in your blood. It is required because Coronavirus deprives your body of oxygen. That is why many patients require ventilator support.
The Delhi Chief Minister hadn’t always looked the other way. Realising the seriousness of Coronavirus infections, Kejriwal set up a task force on March 4. It comprised himself, three municipal corporations, NDMC, Delhi Police and various departments of Delhi government to deal with the infection. It was never revealed if there were any epidemiologists or virologists on this taskforce.
However, according to minutes of the meetings released, the task force met only twice – on March 4 and March 8. After that there has been no communication from this task force. One can only wonder what they have been doing for 95 days since then.
When the number of cases began to spike in the national capital in June, the Delhi government belatedly set up a five-member committee led by Dr Mahesh Verma on June 2. They were to guide the Kejriwal government, 75 days after lockdown began, on the preparedness of hospitals in the capital and strengthening of health infrastructure for better management of COVID-19 in Delhi.
Before this, on March 27, an advisory committee led by Dr SK Sarin was set up to suggest measures to the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak in the city. Both the committees are functional. On June 12, LG Baijal appointed another a six-member advisory committee led by Balram Bhargava of ICMR to suggest effective measures to DDMA.
It remains unknown why there are three functional committees for the same reason.
In between all of this, the Delhi government created a Coronavirus app, allegedly to transparently show the number of vacant beds and ventilators in hospitals. However, since the beginning, there have been differences between the reality in hospitals and the availability of beds on the app. The government also forgot that not every sick patient in Delhi is affluent or owns a smartphone or is digitally literate.
Then, the government issued a notification asking hospitals to place LED screens near their walls depicting the availability of beds and ventilators. Until today, no Delhi hospital has done this.
On April 17, a month after Prime Minister’s first address to the nation on COVID-19 on March 19, the Delhi government set up a dedicated Whatsapp number for COVID-19 complaints. Then on April 30, 35 days after the lockdown began, the Delhi government set up a COVID-19 helpline number for senior citizens. On March 25, a day after the lockdown began, Kejriwal announced the setting up of a Hunger Helpline.
However, hardly anyone could get through to any person manning these helplines. There have been several complaints from workers, COVID-19 patients and senior citizens. Almost all of them had to take their pleas to social media for resolution.
Policy flip-flops have become the norm. On June 14, the Delhi government issued an order declaring nursing homes having bed strength of up to 49 as COVID-19 nursing homes. By evening, the order was withdrawn.
With increasing number of COVID-19 cases, the Delhi government decided in their infinite wisdom that low testing numbers would help decrease the number of patients who test positive for COVID-19. On June 2, they released an order stating that only symptomatic people could be tested, even in case of contacts of COVID-19 positive patients. This was even more stringent than the testing criteria fixed by ICMR. On June 14, the Delhi government did a U-turn on the order. The health minister Satyendar Jain said testing would be open to all.
On May 1, the Delhi health secretary issued an order directing medical directors to obtain written explanations from healthcare workers how they were contracting the virus despite wearing protective gear. After an outrage, the order was withdrawn.
As the infection in the capital multiplied, the numbers of death also spiralled. A panicked government decided to fudge the number of deaths. When bodies began to pile up, the government was forced to admit the same. Instead of addressing the crisis, the Delhi government has been attempting to dress up their responses to the growing infections in the city. As of June 13, Delhi has 41,182 COVID-19 cases and Sunday saw the highest single day spike of 2,224 cases.