ON JANUARY 25, exactly two months before the first COVID-19 death was reported in Madhya Pradesh, the state’s Directorate of Health Services issued its first advisory to hospitals to be on alert. A second direction followed three days later, asking collectors to form task forces and set up isolation wards for those returning from Wuhan, China, then the epicentre of coronavirus.
On January 31, a day after India reported its first case of infection in Kerala and the WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, the state government decided to make all those who had returned from China after January 15 undergo a coronavirus test.
As Madhya Pradesh becomes the third state after Maharashtra and Gujarat to record over 100 deaths due to COVID-19, and cities like Indore and Ujjain emerge as hotspots, what is becoming increasingly clear is that while the state had started gearing up to take on the virus early, it took its eye off the ball during the crucial period in March when it was rocked by political turmoil.
The Congress and BJP have traded charges over this period, with the Congress accusing the latter of being more interested in toppling its government in Madhya Pradesh, and the BJP saying that when it came into power, the state was ill-equipped to handle the virus.
Multiple bureaucrats, both serving and retired, whom The Indian Express spoke to, spoke about the confusion in Bhopal hitting coronavirus efforts in March.
Noting that the initial momentum was lost, a senior bureaucrat said, “We had started surveying those who had come from abroad by the end of January itself. The Directorate of Health Services issued at least a dozen advisories in February alone. It was much before the fear factor had set in.”
On March 3, then Chief Secretary Sudhi Ranjan Mohanty held a video-conference with district collectors and district police chiefs and directed them to ensure medical check-up of all those who had returned from abroad.
But, soon after, Bhopal was overtaken by the political tussle between the Congress and BJP. “The Kamal Nath government was caught up in saving itself. His Health Minister had rebelled. There were also no cases in Madhya Pradesh. so the political class perhaps took it lightly,” a senior official said.
The Health Minister at the time was Tulsiram Silawat, a close confidant of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who crossed over to the BJP. Sources said the last official meeting Silawat attended was a Cabinet meeting on March 6.
An official currently in the government said, “We issued directions that there should be no Holi celebrations on March 10. We shut all schools, colleges, malls etc on March 13. But, as you know, all attention was on the political crisis then.”
A top state official, sources said, had to pull political strings to ensure that the Gair congregation to be held in Indore on March 14 for Rang Panchami was put off. This was a task as the organisers were close to both Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and the BJP’s Kailash Vijayavargiya. “We got across messages to both, urging them to impress upon the organisers to cancel.That is the way things were in complete flux between March 10 and 24,” a senior official said.
Meanwhile, BJP leaders, including Shivraj Singh Chouhan, belittled the threat from the virus. “It’s not corona but darona,” was a line repeated by many, accusing the Congress of playing up the COVID-19 scare to save its government.
The first case in MP was reported on March 20, in Jabalpur, the day the Kamal Nath government fell.
Apart from 15 days in March, said another senior official, “another 15 days were lost after the Chouhan government took over because there was no clear direction”. Chouhan remained the only minister in the state for a month after taking oath on March 23. Now he has a Cabinet of five.
Then followed the fiasco of the entire top-level bureaucracy in the state’s health department testing positive, starting April 3. “There should have been three-four teams. but everybody was put in one team, and all of them got infected. So there was no health minister, no principal secretary, health, and no director, health services,” said the official.
Chouhan has sought to shift the blame of this too to the previous government, saying, “It appears the health officials were not trained and many of them got infected themselves.”
Chouhan’s bureaucratic shake-up included replacement of Mohanty as chief secretary, transfer of Health Commissioner Prateek Hajela (who had earlier headed the NRC exercise in Assam) and a new collector for Indore. One official said the new collector was relatively inexperienced, and took time to get on top of things.
A few days ago, the CM set up a task force on coronavirus headed by state BJP chief V D Sharma and including only politicians. There is, besides, a 13-member advisory panel headed by activist Kailash Satyarthi and, including a few doctors, which has had only one video-conference with Chouhan so far. Satyarthi’s main suggestion has been to ban child pornography. A third team has been formed comprising medical professionals.
As of Wednesday, Madhya Pradesh’s coronavirus figures stood at 2,560 cases and 130 deaths.
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