In Tamil Nadu, as in most states, Chennai, the state capital has borne the brunt of the onslaught of the Coronavirus. Chennai and its three neighbouring districts, Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu and Thiruvallur, as well as Madurai, account for about 63.5% of the State’s total cases.
In fact, Chennai district is third after Delhi and Mumbai in the list of districts nationally with the most number of confirmed cases, while Chengalpattu, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram too figure in the list of top 30 districts with the most confirmed cases. Madurai is 21st on the list. That makes Tamil Nadu second in terms of the percentage of cases in the country, with almost 15% of the cases all India.
Chennai has had some bad management along the way which has resulted in spikes that have set not only the state back but also had an impact on neighbouring states. The most obvious one was keeping Koyambedu market open even as the first lockdown was being implemented. That should have been warning enough for being better prepared in potentially public locations like markets. The hurried announcement of a total lockdown in five cities in April took people by surprise leading to crowding at grocery stores and petrol stations which led to a rise in cases. In May on the first day of opening TASMAC liquor vends, serpentine queues were seen as people lined up without practicing physical distancing to buy liquor. It is troubling to note that despite all these earlier warning signs, Kasimedu fish market witnessed unrestricted overcrowding in the third week of July.
Over the past few months there has been positive feedback on the response of Chennai corporation for example, with corporation workers daily following up in households, sanitising and disinfecting affected areas and now even conducting neighbourhood fever camps every day. Despite the government actively using social media and plain old megaphones to communicate preventive methods, news about containment zones, case numbers and testing, their efforts have nevertheless proven inadequate. The growth in cases is now all across the State and not clustered around Chennai alone as it was in the initial days of the pandemic.
The industrial district of Coimbatore, which recorded 222 new positive cases on Sunday bringing its tally to 3,459, did see a flattening of the curve for a few weeks. The district reported its first hundredth case on April 12, merely six days after Chennai but managed to keep its caseload low. The neighbouring district of Tiruppur, well-known for its crowded textile units has reported 32 fresh cases on Sunday, taking its overall tally to 700.
Erode district with 32 new cases, taking the district’s tally to 618, are the two contiguous district to Coimbatore. In the hill-district of Nilgiris, 31 people tested positive on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases in the district to 692.
The figures related to testing in individual districts not being accurate, one has to rely on statewide numbers. And as the chart shows, the number cases has increased with increased number of tests.
The weekly rate of infection overall for the state has gone up from 9.24% in the June 01-07 week, to 11.05% the following week and rose again to 12.48% in the week June 29-July 05, and is currently at 10.27%.
Tamil Nadu's well-known public health infrastructure and social measures seem to have failed with a weak administration unable to match up to the task in hand. The state’s initial success with meticulous contact tracing and community surveillance with boots on the ground gave way when the numbers kept rising.
Tamil Nadu is a case where the numbers may not tell the whole story, but they do make it look bad. Chief Minister Edapaddi Palaniswami may have launched a free mask scheme recently, but it is important that a coherent strategy be put in place as the State prepares for easing of restrictions once this lockdown comes to an end on July 31. It is essential that a proper behaviour change communication plan be put in place, mask wearing and physical distancing be made compulsory, and testing be ramped up. Along with restrictions in public gatherings and stringent rules for commercial establishments, it may be possible for the State to halt the rising rates of infection and keep it under control.