Delhi’s systems are sinking under the third COVID-19 wave, resident experiences show

Passengers wearing protective face masks stand in queue to get tested for COVID-19 at a railway station in Delhi on 5 October. Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis
09 December, 2020

On 4 November, Delhi resident Anurag Bahl went to get an RT-PCR test for COVID-19. Bahl had tested negative on a rapid antigen test the previous day. As per protocol, he had to confirm that result with the more reliable RT-PCR. He expected that, after 10 months of the pandemic, testing systems would be working smoothly. He was mistaken.

Bahl lives in sector 7 of the Dwarka locality and went to a testing centre in sector 10 about two kilometres away.When he arrived at the centre at 8:30 am, he was told that the technician was on leave. He then went to the Bensups hospital in sector 12, another two kilometres away. The security guard denied him entry saying that the hospital did not conduct COVID-19 tests anymore. Subsequently, he went to the nearby government dispensary which was under renovation. A home guard on duty told him that no tests were being done that day. Next, he went to a polyclinic in sector 2 where he was finally tested. “There was no real-time information at dispensaries so that the people could be aware that where the test is being done,” Bahl said. He observed that people waiting at the various testing centres had no information about what time staff would begin seeing them. 

Bahl was given the run around when he went to collect his report as well. “They first said there was no report under my name,” he told me. “I asked them repeatedly about my test and showed them the ID number. They said that my name was Anurag Bhai in place of Anurag Bahl in the report. They gave me one page of the report instead of two saying that they had no paper left to print the second page.” Bahl insisted on the full report and managed to get it but he is disillusioned with the whole process. “This is surprising that despite being the zonal office of Dwarka district, the sector 2 dispensary had such issues.”

Like Bahl, many residents of Delhi had to visit multiple centres before getting tested during the third wave of COVID-19 that has swept Delhi since early November.This is not merely an inconvenience. It is a big risk. Infected asymptomatic people trying to get tested have a high chance of infecting others during these visits to various centres. Also like Bahl, many people in Delhi have had to wait days for test results. A health official showed me texts from people asking him for help to get their results. Those who have got through to officials are the lucky few. For most part, city systems have failed citizens. People who have tested positive have received little support from health authorities or their political representatives even as the number of cases rose steeply through November.

The rise in cases started in late October. In November the city recorded 1,83,668 cases—an average of more than six thousand cases per day. In November alone, 2,663 people died in the city. Instead of being more responsive, city officials were missing in action. People I spoke to said that no one responded when they called COVID-19 helpline numbers. Officials listed as nodal officers were not answering their phones. 

A Dwarka resident struggled to get through to officials for support for a neighbour who contracted COVID-19 and was in home quarantine. The neighbour needed an oximeter and medicines, his house sanitised and his garbage collected. “I think the system sleeps like Kumbhakarna,” the resident who did not want to be named, said. He was referring to the mythological character from the Ramayana who slept for six months at a stretch. The Dwarka resident called a COVID-19 helpline, which gave him the state control room number. He then called the control room but was left listening to a recorded message for15-minutes. He tried another toll-free service and got no response. After this, he left a message on a COVID-19 Whatsapp support number but got no reply. He found that even the apps set up to track coronavirus cases, such as Aarogya Setu, were unresponsive and did not reflect his neighbour’s COVID-19 positive status for few days.

A sales manager for a private company who lives in Dwarka More said he was unable to reach health officials or the member of the legislative assembly of his area when he fell sick with COVID-19  along with five members of his family. He struggled to get a thermometer and enough medicines from local dispensaries. An ASHA worker helped a little until she contracted COVID-19 herself. “I tried multiple times to talk to the MLA but he didnot answer the phone,” the sales manager, who also did not want to be identified, said. “An MLA is holding the control of administration this pandemic time and he could ask the dispensary to be more responsive and make the health system work properly. I am sad about the system as there are many people like me suffering.”

I tried calling MLAs of different areas of Delhi but got no response. I spoke to one official in an MLA’s office who told me on condition of anonymity that elected representatives were sidestepping complaints because there is a shortage of resources and poor coordination between departments which has put them under great pressure. 

Vikas Sagar, a southwest Delhi resident, said that he was in isolation for 18 days after testing positive. No one from the city’s administration came to test him after isolation or follow up in any way. A journalist living in south Delhi said that health officials did not give him an oximeter or medicines when he tested positive. For a few months the Delhi government had been following its policy of distributing oximeters and over-the-counter medicines for mild symptoms—multivitamins, vitamins C and D, zinc, paracetamol and cough syrup—to anyone who tested positive and could home quarantine. The journalist also noted that authorities at Jawahar Park centre, where he got tested, made no attempt to distance people getting tested for COVID-19 and others. He, and many others who later tested positive, stood in the same queue as mothers who had brought their children to get regular vaccinations. He said no one from the city traced his contacts after he tested positive. He arranged tests for his family himself. Narendra Saini, the former secretary general of the Indian Medical Association, observed that there was limited contact tracing across the city in November. “The seriousness is missing in the system,” he said. 

Municipal services have also faltered during the third wave. For instance, several Dwarka residents told me that garbage from houses that have COVID-19 cases and those that do not were being collected together. This posed a risk for the municipal worker collecting garbage and everyone handling it down the line. Some residents even noted that workers driving garbage vehicles were not wearing the barest protective gear—not even masks. The city had a system earlier in the year where special vehicles and workers wearing full personal protective equipment would collect garbage from COVID-19 houses. However, by November, resident welfare associations noted that no such segregated garbage collection was taking place. 

Rajendra Goyal who is a member of the managing committee for a housing society in Dwarka said the waste collection system was overwhelmed with the surge of cases. “Till October, I would notify the local officials in charge of sanitisation and garbage collection whenever someone in the society tested positive,” he explained. “When the number of cases started rising in November, they could not handle it and stopped responding. Garbage would not be collected for days together.” The society then resorted to asking houses with COVID-19 cases to sanitise their own garbage with sodium hypochlorite before disposing it along with society’s waste. 

Meanwhile, Delhi continues to record close to four thousand cases every day. “People are behaving less responsibly because they have taken the disease for granted now,” Saini said. This was most evident during Diwali, when people shopped and congregated—many despite having coughs, cold and fever that might have been symptoms of  COVID-19. 

Doctors have also noted a reluctance to get tested. Kalpana Nagpal, senior consultant and surgeon at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals recounted how a woman came to see her in mid-November with symptoms of nasal stuffiness, hearing loss and a sore throat that she had for three days. “The patient and her attendant were in disbelief when I said COVID-19 had to be ruled out. They kept on saying she did not have COVID-19. I said I could examine her ears but not nose and throat till she got a test that showed she did not have COVID-19.” Nagpal said she gets one or two patients every week who refuse to get tested. “The general public should pay penalties when they do not follow safety protocols and misbehave when the doctor advises something,” she said.