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Sunday, January 16, 2022

Dharavi sees highest daily tally, braces for more Covid blows

🔴 Officials are wary about the fast-rising numbers, believed to be driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, in an area that, at 66,000 people per sq km, is twice as densely populated as Mumbai.

Written by Rupsa Chakraborty | Mumbai |
Updated: January 7, 2022 10:50:05 pm
The slum as of Friday had 588 active cases, of whom 147 were hospitalised. (Express photo/File)

Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum, which was praised for its Covid management in the second wave, is now battling a third round. On Friday, it reported 150 cases, its highest single-day surge since the beginning of the pandemic. The peak before this was 99, in April 2021.

Officials are wary about the fast-rising numbers, believed to be driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, in an area that, at 66,000 people per sq km, is twice as densely populated as Mumbai (the fifth-most densely populated city in the world). The slum as of Friday had 588 active cases, of whom 147 were hospitalised.

The fact that 85% of the cases are asymptomatic or mild has ironically complicated the task of officials, as they are finding it hard to convince contacts to get quarantined, as mandated by BMC rules. On Friday, 440 people from Dharavi identified as close contacts of patients were in quarantine, though officials said the number should be double that.

“Just half of the close contacts are proactively quaranting themselves (at institutional centres). The remaining either have their phones switched off or are not to be found,” said Ward Officer Kiran Dighavkar, adding that unlike in the first and second wave, there is more virus fatigue than fear among people.

The dozen-odd health posts and dispensaries in Dharavi are flooded with patients with fever. At Muthuthevar Health Post, The Indian Express met symptomatic patients waiting for an RT-PCR test. A medical officer who didn’t want to be named said, “There is a 90% surge in cases of patients with fever, of which about 5% are getting the RT-PCR test done.” The officer said that a lot of infections are among children. “This could be because of the opening up of schools (they are shut now).”

At Chota Sion Hospital, resident medical officer Dr Renuka Patil said that while the patient flow was increasing, the severity remained low, as has been observed in this wave. “Most are getting discharged within three-four days. The involvement of the lungs is less, limiting the need for oxygen.”

On Wednesday, with few around him wearing masks, Zaffar Kariyaniya, the in-charge of Bhadrak Kastiya Ghanichi Samaj (a citizen’s organisation) at Chamba Bazar in Dharavi, said he did not believe the new Covid numbers. “I know each gully of this area but we haven’t found a single case of Covid-19. The BMC is making all these false claims so that the migrants in the slum flee, and its population falls.”

With scepticism high, the BMC is hoping its ramped-up vaccination drive will contain the spread. Dighavkar said the response to shots for the 15-18 age group was encouraging. “Even unvaccinated parents are getting their children vaccinated.”

Qamruddin Sheikh, who runs the NGO Bal Vikas Shikshan Sanstha in Dharavi, said the worry remains the sanitary situation. “It hasn’t improved from the first wave. People still struggle to get drinking water and there are limited lavatories,” said Sheikh.

Nearly 80% of Dharavi’s population is dependent on community toilets. The BMC claims the slum has 450 community toilets. Each toilet has 10-15 seats, shared by at least 100 people daily. Dighavkar said they were in the process of installing 111 more toilets in the next two-three days, and these would also have washing machines.

More than the virus, many residents are afraid of the new blow to their livelihoods. Dharavi is home to numerous small-scale enterprises — adding up to an annual turnover of USD 1 billion — which have all taken a hit in the pandemic.

Straining her eyes as she used a needle to pluck loose threads out of a pair of new trousers, Nirmala Shivsagar, 50, said the work gave her a headache. But it is her only source of income since losing her job as a domestic help in the second wave of the pandemic. She gets Re 1 per garment, spending 10 minutes on each. In the past two months, even these orders have fallen – from around 100 in November to 20-30 daily now. From Rs 15,000 a month that she made pre-Covid, she is down to Rs 2,000.

“For 15 years, I worked as an ‘aaya’ at the homes of rich people, taking care of their ailing relatives. Now, as we live in Dharavi and are old, they say we are more vulnerable to Covid,” said Shivsagar.

The leather units are among the worst hit. Khurshid Sheikh, 50, says he used to have 15 labourers, mostly migrants, at his leather factory. They left in the first wave and never returned. Now, he is down to four hands. “I had to send a consignment in November 2021. I haven’t still sent it. Now the fear of another lockdown means no one wants to work in Dharavi,” he said.

The papad business has almost come to a halt. “We would dry the raw papads under the sun. Then the health officers asked us to stop as the product might get infected,” said Sushmita Gaikwad, 39.

After reporting its first case on April 1, 2020 — about 20 days after Mumbai – Dharavi had hit the highest on May 5, 2020, when 94 people, of 455 tested, were positive. In the second wave, the peak was 99 cases on April 8, 2021, out of 1,558 tests. On Thursday, 1,115 tests were done, resulting in 107 positive cases.

During the first wave, the BMC had come in for WHO appreciation for measures taken to contain the virus. These involved the 4Ts—tracing, tracking, testing and treating. Dighavkar said only critical patients were admitted to hospitals, with 90% treated at home. “The high-risk zone was sealed and community leaders were appointed as ‘Covid Yoddha’ to address issues. Screening for ILI (influenza like illness) symptoms helped easy detection of cases,” he said.

The BMC also ensured the supply of ration kits, including oil, rice, wheat and salt, as well as grocery kits and food packets within containment zones in Dharavi in the first and second wave. That has ended as the pandemic seemed to be waning.

Even now, Dharavi’s total tally of Covid cases, 7,776, remains lesser than its neighbouring areas of Dadar (11,799 cases) and Mahim (12,452).

Dighavkar had gone on to write a book about the experience: The Dharavi Model: How Asia’s Largest Slum Defeated COVID-19.

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