As the third phase of the lockdown begins on May 4, the scare of COVID-19 making a comeback in the state of Himachal Pradesh is evident from the decisions of the state government. The reasons for such a fear flow from the recent decision of the state government to allow more than one lakh people to enter the state from various parts of the country. A total of 2,56,173 Himachal residents, who are either working or studying in different parts of the country, had applied for entry pass into the state. However, only 53,674 permits were issued and almost an equal number are believed to have entered the state through various borders, without a permit, till April 26.
The government is aware of the fact that it was not able to screen all of them properly. The ‘home quarantine’ dictum is funny, if not ridiculous. Most of those who have returned to the state are from working-class families and to expect separate rooms and separate toilets in houses is a dream, not a reality. Many deputy commissioners in the districts, in their press conferences focused on the need for home quarantine not realising that it is just not possible in a majority of cases.
The decision of the state government exhibits the fear of the spread of COVID-19. The government, instead of adopting the Ministry of Home Affairs formula in toto, made amendments to it. Not to question their wisdom, but the economic activity that was supposed to boost does not seem to be the likelihood. For green zones (in HP, six districts are in green zone and remaining six in the orange zone), the curfew relaxations were supposedly from 7 AM to 7 PM, instead, the Himachal government has reduced the period from 12 hours to just five hours. Similarly, salons and barbershops are not allowed to open. Public transport has also not been allowed in the state.
The government and private offices that will open will have to be shut by afternoon. The entire exercise is to allow people to commute in their private cars instead of public transport. The government is not sure how it will ensure the presence of a large section of the working people who do not own a car. There are no arrangements for the transport of such people. Take for example, in the state capital town of Shimla, where most of the working people commute from adjoining peripherals like Shoghi, Taradevi, Theog, Mashobra, Ganahatti, Dhami and even Solan. It is an impossible task for them to commute to their offices in the given time frame.
Similarly, in most of the towns, especially the district headquarters, a large demand for vegetables and milk of the town population is met by the peripheral areas. These farmers have been in distress for the last two months. The vegetable growers of Theog, Solan and Sirmour are forced to sell their vegetables at a very less price or just throw it in the dung heap to convert it into fertiliser. Because they were not able to reach out to the towns, their vegetables were hardly sold in the market. Cauliflower was sold at a price of Rs 5 and now cherry is being sold at not more than Rs 30 a box. The same box would in previous years fetch a farmer more than Rs 125. It was believed that the state would be able to meet up this challenge and allow the freight of vegetables, fruits and other farmers’ produce. But the lockdown restrictions have shattered the hopes of the farmers.
The question is, why is it that the government is not prepared to allow the relaxation period and is not allowing the economic activity in the state? The state government may boast and project these decisions (of restricting the activity) as a feature of greater caution, but the reality is that the government realises that there is a looming threat of sudden sprout of cases. Even though the chief minister of the state was earlier appreciated for his efforts in reaching out to almost all the houses of the state and creating a database of the people. But the recent entry of a large number of people is a real scare for the government.
Also, it is not a hidden fact that state is not well-equipped to meet the crisis, in case the situation worsens. According to an expert in the health sector, the state will completely falter even if there are a few dozen cases. The reason cited is that the hospitals meant to deal with the COVID-19 patients, Tanda, Shimla and Mandi do not have sufficient gears and personal protective equipment. Despite repeated queries made by the media and other sections, the hospitals have not declared the total number of PPE kits available with them. On average, in a medical ward treating COVID-19 patients, eight PPE kits are required daily; however, if the number of patients are more then the required number is far more than that. For 15 days of treatment, a minimum of 120 PPE kits and correspondingly a higher number will be required for the ICUs, etc.
It will be complete chaos in case the number of patients rises and this the government knows pretty well. Describing the situation as precarious, a medical superintendent of a hospital said that even in advanced countries, with the best medical facilities at their command, are failing in the face the crisis, hence, the focus should be to avoid the spread of infection. However, the hard fact is that the state has completely failed to meet PPE requirements.
The recent example of G B Pant Medical College in Delhi, AIIMS Delhi and a few medical colleges in Gujarat and other parts of the country clearly exhibit this reality of how scarce the resources are. The medical fraternity, for whom plates were banged, candles were lit and latest in the series was showering petals by the air force jets, has become one of the severest critiques of the present government in the country. They are screaming for the basic gears for they are the first ones to fall in case the pandemic is not contained in the country.
The state of government of Himachal Pradesh realises this jolly well and hence, instead of enhancing the medical gears, has decided to restrict the movement of the people to guard the state from a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. What it has failed to realise is that the failure to restart economic activities would only lead to further deepening of the crisis for food and ration in the state.
The author is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla. The views are personal.