Sunil Singh Narpal Singh Sikh tested positive for COVID-19 on 21 March. The 23-year-old, a migrant from Uttar Pradesh who was working as a daily-wage mason in the state, had been having difficulty breathing and is now scared that he will die, his friend, Pyarelal Yadav, told me. Yadav said Singh would keep crying in his isolation ward, in the Kolhapur district’s Kagal Rural Hospital, where he had been separated from all other patients. “We tried to give him some medicines we bought across the counter at a local medical but he was not improving so we got him to the hospital,” Yadav, who is also a mason, said. They earn between Rs 300–500 per day, and send money to their landless families in their native village of Janghai, near Allahabad. Yadav had been advised to quarantine himself. Before hanging up, he asked in earnest, “Do you think I will also end up like Sunil?”
As the number of fatalities to the novel coronavirus in India reached 19 and confirmed cases rose to over eight hundred, Maharashtra has seen among the highest number of cases in any state. The rapid outbreak of the virus in the state has not been limited to the crowded cities such as Mumbai and Pune, but has affected interior districts such as Amravati and Sangli as well. As of 8.30 am on 28 March, Maharashtra had reported 154 confirmed cases and six deaths, according to state health officials. Public-health experts believe a variety of reasons contributed to the pandemic rising in Maharashtra, ranging from the government failing to recognise the gravity of the crisis, the high-density of population, and a demographic that includes a large number of international travellers.
When the total cases in Maharashtra jumped quickly from 64 to 101 within 72 hours, from 20 to 22 March, the state government went into a huddle and decided to place the state under lockdown. Since 23 March, Maharashtra, like Delhi and Punjab, has been under lockdown, one day before the prime minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown. “Nothing much changes for Maharashtra,” Anil Deshmukh, the state home minister, told me. “People should not panic. The same curfew which was working like a total lockdown will now go on till April 15.” Deshmukh added, “We are working to ensure all essential supplies like grocery, milk, medicines and cooking gas are not affected and people are not inconvenienced. Stepping out in panic to buy essentials and crowding shops and markets will be wrong. We will work that out so that both safety and convenience are balanced.”
According to Dr Anant Phadke, a co-convenor of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan—a public-health initiative in rural Chhattisgarh—one of the reasons Maharashtra has shown the most cases so far is because it is highly developed and urbanised. He underlined how Mumbai is one of the busiest airports in the country, which connects people to nodal destinations like Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Amsterdam. “Obviously with that kind of volume of passengers the risk of infection is also that much more.”
Phadke also blamed the manner in which people are tested for the virus at the airport upon arrival. “You’re asked if you have fever, cough or cold. If you say no, they might perfunctorily check if you have temperature and let you go. There is no mechanism in place to monitor whether these passengers can report back if they show symptoms at a later stage,” he explained. “Now, if I have left Italy yesterday, where the coronavirus is creating havoc, I might not manifest symptoms immediately on landing the next day. What the current regimen ignores is how I could still be a carrier and infect others even in that condition.” It is precisely this that led the Punjab administration to allow Baldev Singh, India’s fourth COVID-19 casualty, to enter the state and roam freely, ultimately affecting at least 15 others from his family and village.