On the day it red-flagged Ahmedabad, Surat, Hyderabad and Chennai among “major hotspot districts or emerging hotspots” and decided to send four new teams to monitor these cities, the Centre issued an advisory late Friday night relaxing curbs to allow functioning of select shops within and outside municipal limits. This will not, however, apply to Covid containment zones and hotspots.
In a fresh addendum to its April 15 lockdown guidelines, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued orders to exempt all shops in residential areas and market complexes in rural areas from the lockdown. Outside the municipal limits, which could be roughly translated as rural areas, all shops — barring liquor stores — can now open. Malls and large shopping complexes will remain shut in both urban and rural areas.
The order is likely to make non-essential items available to the public.
The MHA brought in two crucial modifications and inclusions which will act as enabling provisions to allow states open up their economy further. Under the Disaster Management Act, states are, however, free to reject these relaxations in certain areas if they feel it is detrimental to their Covid containment efforts.
Through the new order, the government has removed “shopping complexes” from the list of activities and establishments that are banned and replaced the same with “market complexes within the limits of municipal corporations and municipalities”. This is likely to virtually open up the small economy in the entire rural sector.
Under the category of commercial and private establishments that can now operate, it has included “neighbourhood shops and standalone shops, shops in residential complexes” in urban areas governed by municipalities. However, these are shops which are registered under “Shops and Establishment Act of the respective State/UT” which means liquor stores, which are registered under the Excise Act, and any other store governed by any separate Act will not be allowed to operate.
In urban areas shops in market complexes, single-brand and multi brand malls will not be allowed to operate. In areas outside of municipal limits, “All shops… including shops in residential complexes and market complexes” will be allowed to operate.
However, no more than “50% strength of workers” is allowed and “wearing of masks and social distancing” is mandatory.
Meanwhile, the Centre has placed under the scanner four districts from three states — Gujarat, Telangana and Tamil Nadu — which have together recorded over 5,000 cases.
The MHA said that apart from the new Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs), the one that is already monitoring Mumbai and Pune will also cover Thane, which has emerged as another area of concern.
“The situation is especially serious in major hotspot districts or emerging hotspots like Ahmedabad and Surat (Gujarat); Thane (Maharashtra); Hyderabad (Telangana); and Chennai (Tamil Nadu). These teams would use expertise of the Centre and augment state efforts to fight and contain spread of COVID-19 effectively,” the MHA said in a statement.
The government had earlier deputed IMCTs to hotspots in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and MP. In Bengal, the move sparked a political firestorm with Central teams accusing the state of non-cooperation and the Trinamool government accusing the Centre of fighting with states.
Official district-wise data shows that Ahmedabad and Surat are the worst-hit among the new areas under IMCT surveillance.
Between April 1 and 22, the figures show that infections in Hyderabad and Chennai grew 10 and eight times, respectively. At the same time, it grew 40 times in Ahmedabad and Surat. Thane’s growth was relatively moderate at 23 times during this period.
Of these new cities, Surat has seen the largest spike in cases, from 48 to 338 between April 19 and 22.
As of April 1, the figures show, Hyderabad was on top among these cities, with 44 cases, and Chennai close behind, with 37. But over the three weeks, the two cities maintained a steady line, reaching 472 and 303 cases, respectively, on April 22.
Ahmedabad started out with 33 cases on April 1, and maintained lower numbers than Chennai and Hyderabad till April 12. But by Friday, it had eclipsed every district except for Mumbai, with 1,692 cases and 69 deaths.
The MHA statement said, “These teams would make on-spot assessment of situation and issue necessary directions to state authorities for its redressal and submit their report to the Central Government in the larger interest of general public.”
The latest move was announced on the day that marked the highest 24-hour spike in COVID-19 cases so far, with 1,752 infections recorded from an overall total of 23,452 cases.
According to the Health Ministry’s latest figures, the country has recorded 4,813 recoveries in all, with 37 deaths in the last 24 hours taking the total toll to 723. A total of 5,41,789 samples were tested till Friday morning.
Referring to these numbers, Dr V K Paul, NITI Aayog member (health), said that had there been no lockdown, the total number of cases would have been around 1 lakh.
Dr Sujit Singh, director of the National Centre for Disease Control, said that currently 9.45 lakh people are under community surveillance for suspected contact with positive cases. “Our weekly doubling time (of cases) has increased from 4.2 on April 6 to 8.6 on April 20,” he said.
And, in a video conference with state health ministers and officials, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said that stage three (community) transmission, when the source of infection is not easily traceable, has been avoided so far.
Dr Paul, who heads the empowered group on a medical emergency management plan, said that “had there been no lockdown, a reasonable estimate is that we would have now been at around a lakh cases…we would have been on the doubling time of three days”.
He said that “the good effects will keep showing till the first or second week of May… If we look at the three-day average, the doubling time is 10 days”.
Incidentally, the Ministry of External Affairs had earlier said that India could have had up to 8.2 lakh cases by April 15 without the nationwide lockdown. The Health Ministry had initially rejected the claim but then clarified that some modelling studies did come to that conclusion.
In his video-conference, Harsh Vardhan told state ministers and officials to not let their guard down for four more months at least. “Compared to all countries, our cases per million are the least, mortality too. Our recovery rate is very good. Our doubling rate is around 9 days…with a lot of belief, I am saying that we have definitely avoided stage 3,” he said.
With the addition of three more districts Friday, 15 districts on the COVID-19 map have not reported any fresh case in the last 28 days. A total of 80 districts from 23 states and UTs have not reported any new case in the last 14 days.
The Union Health Ministry has also asked states and UTs to ensure that all facilities under the National TB Elimination Programme (NTEP) remain fully functional, including diagnosis, treatment and provision of medicine for at least one month.
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