How well is Karnataka govt dealing with the COVID-19 crisis?

government response to COVID-19

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Free food packets being distributed at Indira Canteens to daily wagers. Pic: Twitter handle of BBMP Mayor M Goutham Kumar

On Friday, Day 3 of the nationwide lockdown to contain COVID-19, Bengalureans – who were on Day 14 of their own lockdown – received news of the state’s third reported fatality from the virus. A 65-year-old man, with recent travel history to only Delhi, had died at 10.45 am in the isolation ward of Tumakuru’s district hospital.

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The state’s tally of positive cases now stands at 81, with Bengaluru accounting for 41 of those cases.

Three weeks into this crisis, all we know for certain is that the disease is spreading fast; we don’t exactly know where it’s spreading and how to stop it. Amid such uncertainty and the flurry of breaking news, here’s a recap of how the state has been fighting COVID-19.

COVID-19 hits Karnataka in early March

The first COVID-19 case in the state was reported in Bengaluru, on March 9. After a few more positive cases and one death, on March 13, the government announced a one-week “closure of malls, cinema halls, marriage halls and shandies, exhibitions and other public events” as well as a ban on mass gatherings. As cases rose, government  extended the restrictions up till March 31.

By March 22, the state announced lockdown of nine districts including Bengaluru (Urban), until March 31. All non-essential services in these districts were suspended.

On March 23 – a day before the Prime Minister announced the nationwide lockdown – Karnataka  government announced a complete lockdown of the state. Under the Epidemic Diseases Act, state borders were sealed and curfew-like restrictions were imposed.

Shops, commercial establishments, offices, godowns, etc, were ordered shut. Exception was declared only for those involved with essential services related to health, medicine, agriculture, and with essential supplies like water, electricity, fuel and groceries.

All transport services – BMTC and KSRTC buses, Metro, app-based cab services like Uber and Ola – were stopped, with exceptions for medical emergencies and procuring essential commodities. Domestic air services were suspended by the Centre on Monday, with effect from Tuesday, even as reports surfaced about stranded outstation passengers pleading for assistance in facilitating passage at Kempegowda International Airport on Tuesday morning.

To enforce the lockdown, Section 144 was declared in Bengaluru and Mangaluru. The police also stood empowered under Section 269 of the IPC (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) and 270 (malignant act likely to spread infection of a disease) to detain individuals and make arrests.

A timeline of the initial COVID-19 cases, leading up to the state lockdown

March 9: First confirmed case reported in the state, of a Whitefield-based IT employee.
March 10: Three more cases confirmed – the wife and child of the first patient, and another IT employee who had self-quarantined after returning from an overseas trip.

March 11: State government notifies the Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020, giving it extensive legislative powers to set a containment plan in place.
March 12: First fatality from COVID-19, of a 76-year-old man from Kalaburagi.
March 13: Google employee from Bengaluru tests positive, taking total cases to six. Government imposes ban on mass gatherings across the state.
March 15: Seventh confirmed case reported in the state.

March 16: Three more positive cases.

March 17: One more positive case. Total of 11 cases.

March 18: Restrictions across the state extended to March 31, and Rs 200 crore released to mitigate the spread of the disease. Three more positive cases confirmed.

March 19: A patient from Kodagu tests positive.
March 21: Five fresh cases detected, taking total to 20.
March 22: Cases in Karnataka jump to 26. Lockdown imposed in nine districts. 

March 23: Seven more cases reported, taking the tally to 33. State records the third-highest number of cases in the country. CM extends lockdown to the entire state. 

March 24: Prime Minister declares 21-day national lockdown.

Here is a summary of the issues that cropped up in COVID-19 management and how the state government has been dealing with these:

Scaling up testing

Afraid of the deadly virus, Bengaluru citizens experiencing flu-like symptoms had thronged Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases (RGICD), only to be turned away after preliminary screenings, according to a Deccan Herald report.

While the criteria for testing was stringent earlier, the testing policy has been revised. The current policy mandates testing of all who have come in contact with COVID-19 patients, regardless of whether they have symptoms. For this, 31 fever clinics are being set up across Bengaluru, with the aim of screening 25,000 people in 10 days. The same programme would be extended to other affected districts.

Karnataka reportedly has the maximum number of laboratories in the country (five, of which two are in Bengaluru) that are capable of testing for COVID-19. But some earlier reports pointed out that the existing capacity for daily testing at some labs was being stretched over their limits while other labs were lying unutilised due to bureaucratic red tape.

Now ICMR has given permission to four Karnataka labs (three private and one government) to conduct tests, but a recent report says that this has been delayed as the labs are facing a shortage of test kits. The government is also developing five other labs.

“There is no need for everyone to immediately get tested as it’s important for people to not rush the already burdened health system,” said Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health expert based out of Bengaluru. Meanwhile, the 104 hotline remains flooded with callsaround 40,000 a day! — from anxious citizens who are looking for more information on the virus.

Efforts on to contain spread, but preparations made for eventualities

BBMP has set up a ‘war room’ to use technology to conduct surveillance on people within 8-km radius of a confirmed patient, so as to contain the spread of the virus. On March 21, 500 teams of police constables and health workers were formed, to visit people under home quarantine for daily follow-up.

To set up more quarantine centres, BBMP has also identified several non-air-conditioned hotels; state government will pay the room and food rent for the patients in quarantine. Statewide residential schools and hostels of the Social Welfare Department will also be used as quarantine facilities.

There have been complaints about some of the government’s quarantine and screening facilities. Passengers from France who arrived at KIA airport on March 21 had complained of unhygienic conditions at a Devanahalli hospital where they were screened, and reported a lack of toilet facilities and protective gear such as masks and sanitisers. Those isolated at RGICD had complained of lack of access to media or other recreation.

On March 23, the government announced plans to procure about 1,000 ventilators from a Mysuru-based firm, and to purchase 10 lakh masks and five lakh PPE (personal protection equipment) kits.  Government has also passed an order to take strict action against landlords who ask doctors and paramedical staff to vacate houses, after such incidents were reported.

A report by The Hindu suggests that, with all focus now on combating COVID-19, private medical clinics and hospitals in some areas have shut down. This is causing massive inconvenience for citizens facing medical emergencies and other ailments. Meanwhile, an order permitting all registered medical practitioners (RMPs) to hold telemedicine consultations and to prescribe medicines (subject to restrictions) has been issued.

Panic-buying, market shutdowns, shortage and price hikes

Due to confusion over many aspects of the lockdown, citizens rushed to markets in the past two weeks to stock up on rations, The Hindu and the Times of India reported. City also witnessed sudden panic-buying after the PM’s lockdown announcement. But with the intervention of authorities, stores have now put markers to ensure social distancing among customers, and are also limiting the number of customers.

Many shops have put markers to ensure social distancing. Pic: Pranshu Rathee

Also, there have been fewer reports of disruption of supply chains in Bengaluru as compared to other metropolitan cities, due to the timely intervention of authorities.

Many stores are enforcing the use of sanitisers, and others are encouraging home deliveries. To avoid confusion, authorities have begun issuing passes for those performing essential services during the lockdown, based on Aadhaar cards and recommendation letters.

KR market was open till the weekend but wore a deserted look on Tuesday morning. A more recent report suggests dissonance in official policy and execution – though fruit and vegetable sellers should be allowed to operate as part of essential services, local traders reported police harassment.

Supply chains have also been impacted, with farmers getting lower prices; they are demanding that the government ensure minimum support prices. Particularly hit are mango exporters and maize cultivators. “Trade in all commodities at the 144 APMC yards in the state has been lacklustre,” according to a Times of India report

Free food for low-income groups

After an initial decision to provide free food to the poor and homeless through Indira Canteens, the state government took a U-turn. But after public pressure, now it has again announced that Indira Canteens will serve food to low-income groups thrice a day, at the designated hours.

Migrants trying to return home

As in other parts of the country, migrant labourers in Karnataka too are fleeing to their villages due to rising prices and loss of livelihoods. According to multiple reports, migrants are stranded at the Maharashtra-Karnataka border near Vijaypura, at Mangaluru, and near the Kalyan Karnataka region. Other migrants who were previously stranded near the Goa-Karnataka border have been relocated to migrant shelter homes and have been provided food.

Meanwhile, migrants from Andhra Pradesh attempting to return home were quarantined at Kolar; both state governments are working out their temporary housing and return. Karnataka government also launched a hunger helpline 155214 for migrant workers.

Loss of livelihood for majority of workers

A survey on the livelihood of vulnerable workers like garment factory workers, domestic workers, street vendors, pourakarmikas, construction labourers, and those earning a livelihood in the gig economy, has estimated huge economic losses as a result of the pandemic. The survey showed that workers’ income had fallen by 50-70%, and that they were worried about being able to afford food. In a positive development, the Karnataka High Court took cognisance of the report, asked govt to take notice of the issue, and listed the matter for March 30th.

The report came after a 24-year-old autorickshaw driver in the city committed suicide on March 19, allegedly over the loss of daily business

PIL on protecting prisoners from infection

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed before the Karnataka High Court has sought several urgent measures, including steps to prevent an outbreak in prisons, where inmates often live in unhygienic conditions and in proximity with each other.

Combating misinformation

The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020, notified by the state government on March 11, prohibits “any person, institution or organisation from using any print or electronic media for misinformation about COVID-19”; violation of this rule is a punishable offence. Two days later, the government also created a Telegram account to fact-check claims and disseminate information on the virus.

But misinformation is still rampant. For example, poultry prices crashed severely due to fake messages that the virus can spread by meat consumption. A doctor at NIMHANS has also been quoted saying that panicked patients exhibiting common flu-like symptoms are resorting to ‘cures’ from “unauthorised coronavirus treatment centres” that contain “high-steroid drugs and natural alkaloids” which are “affecting the immunity and causing secondary bacterial infections.”

Further, the Public Relations Department, the Indian Red Cross Society and the Karnataka State Labour Studies Institute jointly launched a volunteer-driven initiative to prevent the spread of misinformation. “About 1,200 volunteers are being enlisted so that there will be 300 people ‘on shift’ at any point of time,” said authorities.


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About Pranshu Rathee 4 Articles
Pranshu Rathee is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.

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