Maharashtra's COVID-19 patient tally crossed the 30 lakh mark on Sunday, April 4, with the state coming across its first case on March 10, 2020. It took six months for the number to cross ten lakh, with the next ten added in just four months. In just three months since January this year, ten lakh more patients were added to the state's tally.
This rapid growth in COVID-19 cases is worrying for all in Maharashtra. The state government has come up with new rules on Sunday, which could result in what can be called a 'mini lockdown'. The fear of losing another summer under the shadow of the novel coronavirus is very real.
Health experts believe that the rising numbers have come about due to multiple reasons, international and domestic ones too. Newsclick spoke to doctors and experts, both who are part of the state government's task force to fight the virus, and those looking on from outside.
Dr. Gautam Bhansali is a practicing doctor at Bombay Hospital and also part of state government's task force. He is also in charge of bed facilities at all private hospitals in Mumbai. Dr. Bhansali has coined a new phrase to get past the current situation. "Self-Lockdown is the only way ahead. We can't blame the government for people going out to the beaches and everywhere else. The government not asking them to do so. People have to restrict their activities to fight the coronavirus. Self lockdown is must," he said.
When asked about the reasons behind this rapid growth in case numbers, Dr. Bhansali called it the spike a second wave. "All the European nations have seen this second wave, be it Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany. We have been two to three months behind them, both during the first wave, and now," he said.
He added that Maharashtra and Kerala are seeing this trend early because the states are highly connected internationally. "Be it Maharashtra or Kerala you will find more patients here because these states have more ports, airports, more connections to international transportation. So, we are seeing more patients here. However, it will soon be seen in the entire country. Delhi had been seeing cases in the hundreds but over the last two days the numbers were in thousands. The virus is spreading again," he said.
Dr. Bhansali also gave an insight into Mumbai's situation. "Mumbai was locked for the first time last year, which gave us good results. But you can't keep the city locked down forever. People need work to survive. So, when it opened up, we saw markets overflowing with people. This multiplied the COVID-19 spread. Also, we were testing between 10,000 and 14,000 people daily. That number has gone up to 50,000. It is also a reason why the number of positive patients is up," he added.
Dr. Mandar Kubal has handled thousands of COVID-19 patients over the past year. He has been consulting with a number of doctors across Mumbai on a regular basis. "The current growth in COVID-19 numbers is a result of overall relaxation. People thought the threat was over as vaccines came into the market and the number of patients had gone down. So, at a larger scale, people stopped using masks, markets overflowed and life came back to normal. But the virus is still there. So, we are seeing a rapid increase in patients," he added.
Dr. Kubal believes the new rules are necessary right now. "I think the new regulations or restrictions regarding people's movement is an attempt to balance the economy as well as public healthcare. It is for the state government task committee to review the situation on a daily basis and to make regulations stricter or provide some relaxation. But, I think, to control the spread of the virus, people have to follow the rules. There is no single point solution to end the situation," he said.
The problem is not limited to Mumbai, with other parts of the state like Pune, Nagpur and Nanded have also seen a rapid growth in the number of patients. Mumbai is home to about 35% the of total patients in the state while Pune is at 24%, Nagpur, 18% and Nanded has 12% of the state's COVID-19 patients. The situation is also worsening in Aurangabad, Nasik, Amravati, Kolhapur and other cities.
"These are industrial towns. Such towns do see more activitity like transportation, gathering of people etc. People come and go from other parts of the state to here. So, we are seeing more numbers in the cities," Rajesh Tope, health minister of the state, told Newsclick. "But there is a difference in the situation last year and the current one. We are well equipped now. Doctors are trained and supporting elements like medicines and oxygen are also in good availability. So, the fatality rate is lower than last year. Our focus is to bring the rate down further," he said.
Newsclick also spoke to Dr. Pradip Awate, the state surveillance officer for Maharashtra, in-charge of monitoring epidemic-prone diseases. He said there were multiple reasons for the spike in cases. "During January and February there were many wedding ceremonies across the state as well as grampanchayat elections in 15 thousand villages. These gatherings have had a big impact in the spread of the virus. Also, the mercury dropped to five degrees Celsius in cities like Nagpur and Pune. During this time there were also relaxations on public gatherings. All of these reasons are why the virus has spread rapidly," he said. He also added that different variants of the virus could be another reason. "That needs to be checked via the labs. But, I believe that it could be one of the reasons," he said.
As per Dr. Awate, the state need to change its approach of dealing with the virus. "Our approach is hospital-centric. But that needs to be changed to survey-centric. We need to do more and more survey to get more clues about the virus. If we did this then there won't be pressure on the hospitals," said Dr Awate.
It is now clear that Maharashtra is fighting a second wave of COVID-19. Strict implementation of social gathering rules and rapid tracing of patients as well as more and more vaccinations would help slow the pace of the virus. The state has to up the ante to achieve it.