In race to outdo COVID-19 outbreak, Himachal trips at last hurdle

The state was planning to come out COVID-19-free till two weeks ago

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Monday 18 May 2020

In the race to outdo the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Himachal Pradesh seems to have tripped at the last hurdle. Till two weeks ago, the state government was making tall claims about coming out as COVID-19-free. By the evening of May 18, the tally of positive cases had gone up to 80 from 59 on May 12.

What went wrong?

Some COVID-19 positive cases were expected when the government decided to open up its borders for Himachalis stuck elsewhere, said sources. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur stated that more than 55,000 people wanted to return home from other states.

Many observers claimed that the haste in which people were allowed back into the state should have been avoided and their arrival could have been managed in a better manner. They claimed shoddy management fuelled anxiety among residents.

“They should have first allowed entry of vulnerable people such as pregnant women, old citizens, those with co-morbidities and the poor first. These people should have been quarantined in hotels and guest houses. The government should have then evaluated its handling capacity and before proceeding ahead,” pointed out former Shimla mayor Sanjay Chauhan.

Implementation of quarantine norms also emerged as a big challenge for health authorities. There is anger among people over ‘different norms for different people’.

“The government should explain how the ‘high-ups’ not only entered the state by breaking lockdown norms, but kept moving freely right up to the secretariat. The government first faced public pressure when two members of parliament, Ram Swaroop Sharma and Kishan Kapoor, made their way back home amid national lockdown,” Chauhan added.  

Multiple sources disclosed that people under home quarantine and living at steep heights were moving out with impunity.

Secondly, majority of rental accommodations across the state did not have separate rooms and toilets for those under quarantine. This challenge of surveillance has put people at large on tenterhooks. In several cases, complete addresses of returnees were allegedly unavailable.

The state doesn’t have a health minister either. Ever since former health minister Vipin Parmar was made the assembly speaker, the portfolio has been lying with the CM.

CM Thakur on May 12 announced that the state government has developed a geo-fencing app to ensure that people do not jump the quarantine period.

He has been talking about strengthening institutional quarantine facilities in every district and asking deputy commissioners to ensure that these institutions were away from busy areas and had independent facilities. But there have been examples where people have raised concern over such facilities being set up in busy places with frequent public movement.

Thakur added that all people coming from red zones and with influenza-like illness be kept in institutional quarantine. He underlined that every person entering the state should be thoroughly examined and kept under institutional or home quarantine.  

“Institutional quarantine facilities must be created in such a way that people willing to pay for better facilities are provided the same on payment basis,” he said.

The government is expecting around 300 students from Ukraine to come to Chandigarh soon. It is planning to keep them under institutional quarantine.

 “The need of the hour is to set up a Special task Force (STF) to meet the emerging challenges. No government in the world has been able to wish this pandemic away and no place can be an isolated island. The emphasis has to be on its management. We need proper testing and decentralised quarantine centres. We also need to ensure smooth movement of people coming into or going out of Himachal,” said Chauhan.

Sources said private travel operators had been fleecing poor labourers trying to reach their destinations. Around 68,000 people of other states were stranded in Himachal Pradesh as on May 12.

Sources added that there were instances of people arriving from outside facing hostility from locals in remote corners of the state.

The state has recorded three COVID-19 deaths so far.

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