By Patricia Mukhim
In Meghalaya the Covid infection rates and deaths have been fluctuating. Government is in a dilemma whether or not to relax the lockdown norms. The primary concern of those running the Government is that the rise in Covid cases means hospitalisation and the possibility that the state may run out of beds, ICU and oxygen linked beds. As of June, this year the bed capacity for Covid patients is 1518 which includes 34 ICU beds, 530 oxygen linked beds and 988 beds in different hospitals/corona care centres across the state. In May this year about 87% of beds were occupied by Covid patients. In June and early July, the numbers seemed to have dropped but on Thursday the death count went up to 14 yet again with 513 new cases and a total of 4413 active cases.
So where does that leave us and what are the problem areas that prevent the Covid numbers from falling despite the lockdown? It would have been insightful for us to know on a daily basis whether those who died have been vaccinated. The vaccination coverage as of July 21 is just about (39.82) 40%. While 8.06 lakh people have got their first dose; only 1.40 lakh people have received both doses. We are a state of over 30 lakh people.
Three months of lockdown has resulted in fatigue, depression for some, job loss trauma for others and arrears in rent payments for those renting shop spaces in commercial areas. Government has appealed for empathy from house owners but that is easier said than done because most house owners too rely on house rent for their livelihoods. Life is a value chain. Every chain has a value and when the chain breaks everyone is hurt. The pandemic has broken that value chain.
Now coming to the lockdown and the slow but guarded easing off where shops are allowed to open on alternate days and between certain timings, as ordinary citizens we are left to wonder at the rationale of it all. First, why are shops allowed to open on alternate days only? Would there be many more people on the streets if all shops were to open up? Why is the timing 9.30 am to 3 pm considered safe for citizens to go out and get their essentials? This is a question that leaves many nonplussed and some fuming. How does opening shops on alternate days help in slowing the spread of the virus? What is wrong in opening all shops every day from 9.30 am to 7 pm? What could happen in the second alternative that will not happen in the first one?
Secondly, the Covid data given to the public daily is incomplete. Of the 14 people who are reported to have died of Covid on July 22 and in the past several months after the last data was published, how many have been fully vaccinated and how many are partially vaccinated? Why is this data not provided on a daily basis? Would this not have been a better incentive for people to go get vaccinated? The paucity of research and data in Meghalaya is troubling. Why for instance are some localities in Shillong more vulnerable than others? Why do they have a consistently higher incidence of infections? What are the localities not doing right? Who is responsible for that? For instance, the entire East Khasi Hills is now divided into clusters to quickly understand which clusters have high infection rates and therefore need to be more vigilant. Mawlai cluster reported 25 cases on July 21. The previous day the number of cases was 7. Mawlai has consistently reported higher incidence of Covid. On July 21, the Sohra cluster reported 21 cases, Upper Shillong – 12 followed by Umpling with 10. How did the number of positive cases in Mawlai shoot up by 14 counts from 7, to take the tally to 21? What has happened between July 20 and 21 that saw Mawlai register so many positive cases? Are those cases detected in the same locality/localities? Could it be possible that people queuing up to fetch water from public taps spreading the infection? We have to remember that Prime Minister Modi’s most favoured scheme, the Jal Jeevan Mission which promises piped water to every home is not yet fully complete in rural Meghalaya. People still need to queue up at water points. Could this be a spreading point?
In urban Shillong the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) was launched in 2015 to create universal coverage of water supply as well as sewage management to households, especially the poor and disadvantaged. The objectives of AMRUT are among others to ensure that every household has access to a tap with assured supply of water and a sewerage connection. This noble objective has not been met in the whole of Shillong (urban agglomeration). People, especially those living in rented accommodation still access water from public taps. They congregate around the taps every morning; they chat and exchange notes while waiting their turn for water. Social distancing has no meaning for them. Yet in a pandemic these are the critical issues that are missed.
Meghalaya has two important national health institutions – NEIGRIHMS and the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH). The second institution should have been our sheet anchor during this pandemic providing us critical data on why the Covid surge continues despite the lockdown and looking at what aspects of human behaviour are the reasons for the Covid numbers not coming down. Does the genome sequencing of those affected by Covid now suggest that we have entered the Delta stage? Is it because the Delta variant is more infectious? The public should be kept informed about these developments after observing the infection pattern. The IIPH (Shillong) is adding to the information bank of the State through its cutting-edge research to enable the Government to take effective measures but it needs to be more visible as an independent institution.
What we know so far about the Delta variant is what the World Health Organisation (WHO) and medical scientists across the world tell us, which is that the Delta variant is a variant of concern because it has increased transmissibility. This is observed in several countries. And where the Delta variant is identified, it really rapidly takes off and spreads between people more efficiently than even the Alpha variant that was first detected around December, January 2021. As of today, the Delta variant has been reported in 96 countries of which India is one and it is expected that this variant will continue to spread but vaccination is the only way to reduce deaths. This is where Meghalaya scores poorly and will therefore bear the lockdown pain much more than other states. The lockdown is its own worst enemy.