Updated: May 18, 2021 7:20:00 am
Sagar Choudhary watched the fire burn at the Harish Chandra Ghat of Varanasi. Around him were five bodies. Three burning on metal stands, another on the ghats, and one wrapped in a saffron cloth. Choudhary is a Dom, and has helped people conduct last rites for two decades. But he says he cannot forget what he saw 10 days ago. “There were 60 bodies, taking up every inch of space. We say that Harish Chandra Ghat is the most revered in the country, that those who depart from here attain salvation. That day, even the last rites could not be completed,” he said.
The fallout of that April week, when the waiting time for a cremation stretched to seven hours amid a shortage of wood, is visible. On Saturday, a former garbage dump was being used as a registration site for Covid bodies. With allegations of profiteering, there are now big signposts with prices listed: Rs 5,000 for a non-Covid cremation, Rs 7,000 for a Covid cremation, Rs 500 for the electric crematorium. And two ghats have become four.
But what really makes the Prime Minister’s constituency stand apart from other districts in Uttar Pradesh, where functional infrastructure remains a challenge, is the one-of-its-kind Covid Integrated Command and Control Centre, just 3 km from the ghats.
The wall-to-wall digital dashboard has the imprint of technology all over. This, District Magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma said, is from where Varanasi has been dealing with the Covid crisis, which is beginning to see the shoots of recovery or at least an easing from the last ten days of April.
“I spend four to five hours in a day here now but when there was an oxygen crisis, we used to sit here till 2 am. There used to be panic calls from hospitals,” said Sharma, who is helming the war room. “Our peak was April 14 to April 23.”
Official figures show that in the second wave, active cases peaked at 17,321 on April 25, new cases at 2,796 on April 24 and deaths at 19 on April 26. This marked a steep rise from the first wave last year, when active cases had peaked at 2,355 on August 14, new cases at 301 on August 9, and deaths at seven on July 30.
The figures also show the dip this month. On May 15, the daily new cases stood at 466, active cases at 7,162 and deaths at 798. Just a month ago, on April 15, daily new cases were 1,859, active cases 11,562 and deaths 492. Data from the war room shows that the number of helpline calls received had hit a high of 853 on April 22.
Outside the Command Centre building, which was built as a traffic and police management system under the Smart City project before the pandemic struck, is a board with pictures of Modi and MLC A K Sharma, the “Covid Prabhari” for Varanasi. Inside, there are 40 computer systems, 21 telephone lines, one hospitalisation unit, one ambulance allocation unit and 10 home isolation phone lines. “During the first wave, there were 250 people. That was reduced to 30 people in the middle. Now, there are 355 staffers working in shifts,” Sharma said.
All distress calls on the toll free Covid number of 1077 are handled by the centre, which routes them to various wings as part of a process that is fully digitised. “Fifty-two private hospitals and eight government hospitals are linked to two WhatsApp groups. Requests are immediately uploaded on the dashboard and hospitals pick up cases depending on vacancy. Then, we decide if an ambulance is needed or not,” Sharma said.
“Earlier, we used to note details on paper. The new system was developed 25 days ago because calls were so many and delays could cause death. So we reduced the time. We increased the technology input, worked with a Google sheet, and trained people to work without paper,” he said.
The centre also handles oxygen management, sample monitoring and contact tracing, and checks on rural response teams. Through Saturday, when The Indian Express visited the centre, it facilitated the supply of 190 oxygen cylinders and 7,113 medicines, made 7,886 calls including to those in home isolation, and received 367 calls of which 35 were for hospitalisation.
According to Sharma, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) keeps a close watch with three officers deputed to keep top officials in the loop in a WhatsApp group. “Every alternate day, a work page note is generated for the Prime Minister,” Sharma said.
“It has been a very positive and constructive support. For example, I ordered 400 cylinders from my disaster management fund. The company took the money but wasn’t transporting. The PMO put pressure and they dispatched it. Similarly, we had given Rs 1 crore to a company from Aurangabad to start an oxygen plant. They said they would start setting up the plant the next day, but did not. The PMO put pressure,” he said.
The 2006-batch IAS officer also pointed to the “RNA extractor machines provided by ASSOCHAM”, which has reduced testing time at Banaras Hindu University, “on the intervention of PMO”. “There are transport issues, there are logistics issues, there is a lockdown. Last year, BHU didn’t have a high-capacity RT PCR machine. We ordered some but they had to come from Chennai. So the PMO coordinated with Spice Jet. They brought it to Delhi, my truck went to Delhi,” he said.
“We also got an extra remdesivir allocation of 2,000, which we distributed everywhere. Varanasi distributed the maximum remdesivir throughout all of UP. It would be higher than Lucknow and Noida. And people from the surrounding areas benefitted also,” he said.
According to officials at the centre, there are only 647 patients from Varanasi among the 1,400 hospitalised in the district. “Because it is the PM’s constituency, because of the mobilisation. Because time was very important and we are comfortable now within one-and-a-half months. Otherwise, like last year, we could have been toiling for three four months,” Sharma said.
The centre has now begun preparations for a third wave: three oxygen generation plants have been set up for three government hospitals with four on the way, 180 oxygen concentrators acquired with 620 more in the pipeline, and orders placed for 500 nebulisers.
“I have planned for oxygen plants for all seven government hospitals, and they have all been tied up. Now eight CHCs are there, and three of those have been tied up as well…five oxygen concentrators have been sent to each CHC,” Sharma said.
But back at the ghat, the wounds from April are still fresh. “They say they didn’t know about the ferocity of the second wave. They know about the third, don’t they? If bodies pile up again, Kashi will not forgive,” said Choudhary.
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