Delhi’s Covid-19 response needs Centre’s oversight

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Published: June 23, 2020 7:45 AM

The NCT govt is the principal actor in fighting Covid-19, but it hasn’t done well so far; must coordinate with Centre.

Mumbai, while still not out of the woods, has seen daily infection growth rate stabilise at a lower level than India’s for a week now.Mumbai, while still not out of the woods, has seen daily infection growth rate stabilise at a lower level than India’s for a week now.

The Centre asking the Delhi government to report every Covid-19 death to it, to realign containment zones, and to link each district with a big hospital may seem heavy-handed interference, especially given this hasn’t been asked of any other state or UT government, however bad its Covid-19 handling. But, the Delhi government had utterly lost the plot on Covid-19. Apart from the huge discrepancies in death data—the municipal corporations in the national capital territory (NCT) report twice the deaths the NCT government claims have occurred—the Delhi government wanted to not only restrict ICMR’s narrow testing guidelines even further, but also had announced a drastic roll-back of contact tracing. Meanwhile, the NCT seems set to overtake Mumbai as India’s corona capital, with daily new infections averaging 1,852 between June 1-21, while they averaged 699 during the fourth lockdown and 347 during the third. Mumbai, while still not out of the woods, has seen daily infection growth rate stabilise at a lower level than India’s for a week now.

Indeed, with Delhi anticipating nearly 5.5 lakh infections and nearly 90,000 hospitalised cases by end-July, the Arvind Kejriwal government took some appalling decisions, such as reserving Delhi hospital beds for NCT residents only. Better sense prevailed, though, with the lieutenant-governor (L-G) overturning this and the narrower testing criteria decision. How ready the Delhi government has been for sometime to throw in the towel was evident from how it tried to spin this decision of the L-G—and by extension, implicate the Centre—as endangering access to healthcare for residents of Delhi. A lot of the NCT’s problems are also because of the limitations of it being a half-state, but any government looking to protect the people from the pandemic would have first looked at the gaps in the public healthcare infrastructure, and used the lockdown period to shore this up. Help could have been sought from the Centre—imagine what an Army field hospital could have done for Delhi’s Covid-19 capacity, which stands at 13,345 hospital beds as of June 22—and if it had not come, there would have been legitimate ground to hold the Centre to account.

This is not to say that the Centre hasn’t been caught short. While it should have proactively looked to partner the NCT government early on given how Delhi is also the seat of the Union government, even now it seems to be betting big on what could be huge mistakes—whether it is doing this in the right earnest or not is hard to say. First, despite RT-PCR capacity having risen manifold and rapid antigen testing being rolled out, ICMR—under the Union health ministry—still restricts testing to largely the symptomatic while a large proportion of the Covid-19 affected could be asymptomatic. Last week, the L-G ordered that every case of Covid-19 was to undergo institutional quarantine for five days; this was eventually rolled back and replaced, by the NCT government, with a more sensible policy—institutional quarantine only for those who manifest severe symptoms or have underlying co-morbidities. The Centre has to understand that the Delhi government will be the principal actor in implementing the Covid-19 response in the national capital, but the NCT government should also take sincere note of its own failures so far, and cooperate with the Centre’s monitoring of the situation so that Delhi has a shot at avoiding Mumbai’s fate of a couple of weeks ago.

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