As Indore struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19, with 55% of the cases and 73% of the deaths in Madhya Pradesh, politicians, including of the BJP, and officials on the ground admit a series of mistakes in the state’s largest city.
While the state wasn’t adequately prepared, and did not take the crisis seriously at first, what compounded matters were WhatsApp messages polarising the Muslim community in Indore against testing, as well as the absence of a clear hierarchy in the midst of a change of government.
As on Tuesday night, Indore had 411 cases of 741 in the state and 37 of its 53 deaths. Besides, 13 people are critical.
A senior police official, in-charge of enforcing what he calls “the strictest lockdown in the country”, says, “There was always a need to be very careful with Indore. It is the city that has the best air connectivity in the state. Its industrial zone has people from various states. But, in the first few days, I will say till the end of March, there were problems in the administration, and that cost us.”
On Monday, 1,142 samples were sent for testing to Delhi via a chartered plane, to clear a backlog in the state.
BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, a former Indore MLA, as well as ex-BJP Indore MP and former Speaker Sumitra Mahajan admitted there was “a lag in the beginning”, but added things were on track now.
A senior IAS officer said the first cases of corona in Indore were reported from four-five pockets, predominantly minority-dominated and including Bakkhal. “Even now these are the pockets with the largest spread,” the official said.
The district administration as well as senior police officials say much of the fear in these pockets was due to fake WhatsApp forwards warning that “coronavirus was being injected into Muslims”, and that entire families would be taken into quarantine and then infected. Senior police officials said at least three people had been booked and two arrested for running these WhatsApp groups.
In one video that went viral, health workers and doctors were chased away from Tattpati Bakhal, one of the hotspots in Indore.
As a result of this fear among the community, officials believe those with coronavirus symptoms delayed coming to hospital, thus pushing the mortality in these areas to close to 10%, the highest in the country. “People came into hospitals only when things became desperate. There was very little chance of saving them,” a senior official said, while adding that it didn’t absolve the government of lack of preparedness.
Dr Jyoti Bindal, Dean of Indore’s MGM Medical College, which analysed the city’s 23 deaths till last Thursday, earlier told The Indian Express, “Co-morbidity and late reporting were the main reasons. We had patients with tuberculosis, HIV and severe diabetes. Most of them came so late that they had to be put straightaway on ventilators.”
Vijayvargiya said they have tried to correct this misapprehension, “partially because of lack of awareness about the disease and partly because of a false campaign”, among the Muslim community. “We have launched an intense campaign and people, including the Muslim community, are cooperating. I had several rounds of meetings with Muslim clergymen.”
The BJP leader added that his son and Indore MLA Akash was leading an awareness campaign himself.
However, even BJP leaders admit that the political uncertainty in the state in March, leading to the party toppling the Congress government, affected its response. “The state administration was stuck with developments around the power shift,” a BJP MP said.
Congress leader and Indore resident Shibha Oza accused the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government of “criminal negligence”. “The BJP and its leaders, including Chouhan, made fun of the initial coronavirus warnings,” she said.
Currently Indore is under strict lockdown. Asheesh Singh, Nagar Nigam Commissioner, said, “If you look at the cases now, these are from 14 to 20 days ago. We had lots of pending samples and they have gone to Delhi. So for two to three days, the cases can shoot up. But after that, we believe, the numbers will subside. Saat dinon ki ladai hai (It’s a battle of seven days).