Coronavirus spreading in any state has an all-India implication.
The central government sending teams to monitor certain hotspot districts in four states – West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – has, not surprisingly raised the hackles of some who see this as opposition politics; the first three states are all non-BJP ones. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, was the first to say she wanted to know the criterion used to select the states and that the move may not be in keeping with the spirit of federalism.
The optics may look bad but there has been no team sent to the CPM-ruled Kerala since it is obvious the state has done a great job in controlling the virus; this is not so in the other states. Infection levels in Maharashtra are growing faster than the all-India average in the last five days and the state’s death rate of 5% – versus the all-India average of 3.2% a – suggest the state’s infections are still understated. What makes things much worse is the large number of cases discovered in populous slums like Dharavi where social distancing is next to impossible.
The fatality rate in Maharashtra was a high 7.5 on April 13 and fell to 5 on April 21 only because the number of those infected rose from 1,985 to 4,666; high fatality rates suggest high infection levels and, sooner or later, that shows up in the numbers.
Something similar was observed in Gujarat where the fatality rate was 9.5% on April 4; it fell to 3.7% on April 21 as the number infected rose from 105 to 1,939; indeed, given Gujarat has the fastest growth over the last five days, it should be included in the states where teams are being sent.
While West Bengal’s infection growth is higher than the all-India average, an additional problem is that, at 55 per million, it has very low testing rates as compared to 557 for Kerala and 1,400 for Delhi. Uttar Pradesh is another state that is testing too little (147 tests per million people) and, like West Bengal (3.9 persons infected per million population), it also has an unbelievably low infection rate (5.5); Bihar is worse, with 99 tests per million and 0.9 infected persons.
Once the teams come back, both the centre and the states need to discuss how best to tackle the problem; it could be more pooled community tests, more drone surveillance to ensure social distancing, more deployment of police and volunteers (as in Andhra Pradesh) for intense tracking of those the infected people have met, more protection equipment for medical teams, etc.
Under no circumstances should anyone connected with the government or the ruling party point fingers at how opposition states are faring when dealing with the virus; this has happened in the past, and it is important to keep in mind the battle is a joint one with no place for either the central or state politicians’ egos.
Normally, health issues are to be dealt with by the states, but in this case, a runaway infection can spread across borders just as quickly since, while ICMR has not declared community transmission is occurring, this is bound to happen.