Madhya Pradesh’s COVID crisis: no health minister; police and health officials test positive

On 23 March, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Shivraj Singh Chouhan took oath in a packed ceremony in the state capital’s Raj Bhavan, the governor’s official residence. MP.BJP.ORG
10 April, 2020

On 7 April, Preeti Pandey, the wife of an Indian Administrative Services officer Rajkumar Pandey, released a video that went viral across Madhya Pradesh, and Bhopal in particular. In it, Preeti, looking grim and visibly anxious, methodically explained how her husband, who worked for the National Health Mission, contracted the COVID-19 virus in one of the meetings he had  with his colleagues. The cruel irony of Rajkumar’s case is that the government officials had convened the meeting to prepare a strategy to combat the pandemic. Rajkumar is one of several NHM workers from Madhya Pradesh to contract the virus, compounding an ongoing crisis in the state where almost the entire health department has either tested positive for COVID-19 or been placed under quarantine.

“He got himself tested, and it came back positive, following which he was admitted at AIIMS hospital, Bhopal,” Preeti said in the video. “He’s been admitted for two days, but no doctor has seen him yet. In the name of isolation, he has only been given two medicines—cetirizine and paracetamol.” Pausing only to hold back tears , she added, “They are not following any government protocol. The food is also terrible. After getting frustrated for two days, he himself requested to be shifted to Chirayu Hospital.” The Chirayu Hospital, which is also a medical college, is a premier private medical institutions in Bhopal.

The day the video was circulated, the public-relations officer of AIIMS, Bhopal released a statement denying the allegations raised by Preeti, noting that the hospital was “treating all patients as per protocol with an untiring devotion” and that Rajkumar was attended to “on regular basis.” The PRO claimed that the video was “propaganda” and said it could adversely affect the morale of the state’s health workers. Yet, the next day, the state’s health commissioner, Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, wrote to the director of AIIMS, Bhopal, stating that 11 NHM workers, who were admitted in the hospital with COVID-19, would be transferred to the Chirayu Hospital. The workers are the latest among numerous health officials from Madhya Pradesh to test positive for the virus.

With nearly four hundred confirmed cases in the state, Madhya Pradesh is fast becoming one of India’s worst-managed states in its response to the COVID pandemic. On 8 April, as the state government ordered that three major cities—Indore, Bhopal and Ujjain—would be sealed completely. The next day, Indore reported India’s first case of a doctor to die of the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, Bhopal has reported at least 74 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which includes 34 positive cases among health-department officials and 15 among policemen and their families. “It is true that some number of infections have been found among police officials, health department, and their families and the places where they live are now in a containment zone,” Parikipandla Narahari, a secretary in the state government’s public-relations department, wrote, in an emailed response to queries.

In mid March, while other states prepared for a prolonged battle against COVID-19, Madhya Pradesh was in political turmoil, as the Bharatiya Janata Party toppled the Congress government, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan became the chief minister for the fourth time. On 23 March, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the entire country under lockdown, Chouhan took oath in a packed ceremony in the state capital’s Raj Bhavan, the governor’s official residence. The government seemed to display no concerns about social-distancing protocols amid the COVID pandemic. Its inexplicable nonchalance to the prevailing health crisis seems to have continued, given that the government has still not appointed a health minister.

Yet, Narahari claimed that the state government was “well prepared to fight this Havoc” and that it was “leaving no stone unturned, for the well-being of its people.” He added, “We have ensured a cover of 50 lakh rupees for all the health department, revenue, police, urban development and other personnel who are fighting for society against this pandemic of COVID-19.” On the question of the government’s failure to appoint a health minister, or a cabinet, the secretary suggested that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic took priority over appointing a health minister. “As soon as I took charge of the State and responsibility to fight this crisis arising out of Corona, I put my entire team into this,” Narahari wrote. “First of all, we have to control this epidemic.”” It is unclear whether the newly appointed chief minister believed that a grand oath-taking ceremony would be more effective to curtail the spread of the pandemic than appointing a health minister.

“Chauhan was in a tearing rush to get sworn in, why couldn’t that be done for the cabinet as well?” Sachin Jain, an activist working with the Right to Food campaign in Madhya Pradesh, asked. “Seems like the MP government wants to prove to the world that the society can function without a government. There is no cabinet, no one was sworn in except the chief minister … The cost of it will be borne by the city in the coming weeks. Their negligence has pushed all sections of society in crisis. There is no formal system to address this crisis.”

Indeed, almost the entirety of Madhya Pradesh’s health department—which comprises only of bureaucrats and no minister, at a time when the state has reported a death toll of 29 to the COVID-19 pandemic—have either tested positive for the virus or are under quarantine. “There is no health minister in the state, and the entire government machinery is down,” Rachna Dhingra, a social activist working with survivors of mass cyanide poisoning that took place in the city in 1984, caused by a gas leak from a pesticide plant—more commonly known as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy have a weakened immune system, which puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Yet, the government has not shown any urgency to address these concerns.

“The government has not placed a plan or protocol to deal with food scarcity or with rising medical needs of citizens,” Dhingra continued. “They expect us to follow social distancing but they spent all of March only focussed on getting the BJP government back in power, in complete disregard to health precaution that needed to be taken.” Following the BJP coming to power, the state’s health-policy decisions have been taken during meetings among the health officials. According to Preeti, it was at one of these meetings that Rajkumar contracted the infection. Apart from the health officials, nearly twelve IAS officers as well as Chouhan and Kidwai, have been placed in quarantine after attending these meetings. “We don’t have a food minister, health minister and all the decisions are concentrated with one man—who is in quarantine after exposing himself to infected patients,” Jain, the food-security activist, told me.

Pallavi Jain Govil, the principal secretary of the health department, J Vijayakumar, the director of health services, and Veena Sinha, an additional director in the health department, have all tested positive in the first week of April. Govil and Sinha were among the first health officials to contract the virus and reportedly attended every meeting on the COVID pandemic. Dhingra said, “We have no council of ministers. Everyone is in quarantine. We are told they are meeting and taking decisions but there is no reflection on the ground, where the communities I worked with don’t have access to two square meals a day.” She continued, “The public-health system has collapsed and instead of fixing the system to serve the people, they are punishing people by not ensuring that they get access to food, medicines and treatment.”

With the state’s machinery entirely out of action, the city’s plush Char Imli locality—equivalent to the Lutyen’s area in Delhi, where senior government officials reside—has been declared a containment zone. The chief minister’s residence and the Raj Bhavan, too, are in a containment zone due to detection of positive cases in vicinity. “The situation in Madhya Pradesh is alarming, especially Indore and Bhopal,” Amulya Nidhi, a co-convenor of the non-profit Swashthya Adhikar Manch, said. “The number of deaths is increasing as well as the infections are spreading to other districts. The government should immediately call an all-party meeting, invite public-health experts and civil society to develop a plan.”

In her video, Preeti stated that the juniors government officials who were patients at the hospital were not receiving proper care. “They pay more attention to the senior officers,” she said. “Please take note of the negligence of the administration. For three days, I have been in isolation with my three-year-old son in my house, but nobody has come from NHM to take our samples. Since yesterday morning, when my husband’s results came, I have been waiting, but nobody has come yet. My husband has also called them and asked them to collect our samples, but nobody has come so far.”

She further noted that the level of administrative negligence was also reflected in the fact that despite news reports about Rajkumar’s test results to be positive, there had been no efforts to sanitise their locality. Towards the end, Preeti explained that she had recorded the video as a desperate attempt to get the “chief minister and the prime minister’s attention,” so that her family could get the required medical attention.

However, given that he is yet to appoint a health minister, the chief minister does not appear to be acting with the necessary urgency that the public-health crisis demands. In fact, Narahari’s response suggested that Chouhan had still not taken any decision on the formation of a cabinet, even as Madhya Pradesh reeled under a surge of cases. “At this instance, civic interest, public health and safety are paramount and is our biggest responsibility,” Narahari wrote. “Whatever decision will be taken regarding the formation of the cabinet, you will be certainly informed about it.”