The Gujarat High Court has pulled up the state government and the Surat city administration over “delayed response” in tackling the Covid-19 outbreak in the district that has gone “from bad to worse”, despite witnessing the situation in Ahmedabad the preceding months.
A division bench of Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice JB Pardiwala was hearing a bunch of public interest litigations (PILs) pertaining to the Covid-19 situation in the state as Surat has been reporting the highest number of cases per day for over a month now.
In the order made public on Tuesday, the court said that they were “informed” that “the delayed response from the state and city administration is responsible for the current situation in the city of Surat, which has gone from bad to worse. The health department of the state government knew that Surat would erupt in a matter of time. We are informed that the testing was not ramped up…”
“According to experts, Surat had to only replicate the readily available and lauded Ahmedabad Model. As Surat has gone from bad to worse, the effect of the same is to be seen in the entire south Gujarat, more particularly, the rural areas. The mortality rate in Surat is also quite high,” the order added.
The court sought a report from the state at the earliest on eight issues, including preventive taken by the health department in Surat, hospitals providing Covid treatment, details of isolation beds and other critical care facilities, price regulation and bed availability for poor patients, number of active patients in hospitals, Covid care centres, home isolation facilities and measures taken to prevent Covid deaths.
The court also sought to know action taken to control the spread of infection elsewhere in Gujarat as well as steps taken to ensure workers’ safety in Surat’s diamond and textile industries.
The bench observed that Surat has become the “state’s hotspot of the epidemic with one in every five cases being reported from here”, even after it reported exodus of estimated 18 lakh migrants. “After having witnessed what happened in Ahmedabad, the state should have been more careful in tackling the situation in the city of Surat,” the HC noted.
Applauding the “tiring efforts put in by front-line workers and the state government” in Ahmedabad to reduce Ahmedabad’s case burden from 65 per cent in Gujarat to 42.2 per cent at the time of hearing of the PIL on July 24, the court warned that Surat’s increased caseload from 14.5 per cent to 28.8 per cent within a fortnight “should not be ignored”.
“Ahmedabad has been a national hotspot since the outbreak of Covid-19 in India. Our doctors, police force, civic bodies and other front-line workers have been working limitlessly to control the situation here. To keep Ahmedabad safe, it is important that for the time being, a travel ban is imposed between Surat and Ahmedabad…,” the court said.
The court also sounded caution on public complacency saying, “…the pandemic is far from over and the virus still thrives amongst us… (if) we continue living complacently, we might end up losing our lives. Masks certainly do not guarantee 100% protection from Covid-19 but there is mounting evidence to show that even non-medical, cloth masks help prevent the coronavirus from spreading… All it takes is discipline and determination to do the right things”.
On migrant workers returning to Gujarat, the court said that it expects the state government “to help and support all such migrant workers who are returning for the purpose of employment”.
State counsels — advocate general Kamal Trivedi and government pleader Manisha Shah — had submitted before the HC that there are no migrant workers at present seeking repatriation and that many who left for their native states are returning to the major cities of Gujarat for employment.
“It is expected of the state government to work out necessary modalities to help such migrant workers in some way or the other so that they can sustain themselves with their respective families till the situation becomes normal… We are conscious of the fact that by and large the issue of migrants has been taken care of by the state government to our satisfaction,” the court concluded.
The court directed the state government to enhance the fine for not wearing mask in public places “to a minimum of Rs1,000 and that it should be uniform across the state. It also directed the state government to take steps against rickshaw drivers who permit passengers board without face masks. “The rickshaw driver would also be liable to pay the fine for the same along with the passengers who are found not wearing masks,” the court directed. Similarly, shopkeepers who permit customers without a mask will be “equally liable to pay the necessary fine”.
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