New Delhi: At a colony in North Delhi’s Majnu ka Tilla, an 85-year-old woman stood behind the gate of her house Wednesday, looking on as other women, children and vegetable sellers went about their daily activities. Her mask hung below the nose, and the gate, low in height, was the only barrier separating the woman, a Covid-19 patient, from the outside world in the congested area.
Anyone passing by could possibly be at risk of contracting Covid-19. But there was nothing to warn anyone about the fact that the house has been classified as a containment zone because of five infections among its inhabitants.
ThePrint itself learnt about the classification because the address is listed on the Delhi government website as a containment zone, and the family living there confirmed as much.
A containment zone, according to the Delhi government website, “is notified when three or more corona positive (sic) cases are found in a particular area”. Even individual houses can be classified as such.
According to the protocol put in place by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, these areas have to be barricaded and civil defence volunteers deployed outside to prevent patients or at-risk contacts from leaving the house or the area — the idea is to restrict movement to keep the infection from spreading.
Until earlier this month, the Kejriwal government was putting up posters outside Covid patients’ houses to warn others. However, the practice was ended in the light of a Delhi High Court order meant to prevent social stigma for patients.
A containment zone is de-contained “if no positive cases are reported inside a containment zone for the last four weeks”.
As of 17 November, Delhi had 4,501 containment zones, of which 1,000 have been marked this month alone amid a fresh surge in Covid cases in the capital.
On Wednesday, ThePrint visited 13 areas with containment zones across seven of Delhi’s 11 districts and discovered that the protocol hasn’t been implemented properly in many places.
For example, only three of the 13 zones — all three in Najafgarh, in Southwest Delhi district — had civil defence volunteers stationed in their limits.
In at least six neighbourhoods, residents were largely unaware about the presence of containment zones in their vicinity. In the remaining four, people said they knew there was a containment zone nearby but didn’t know their exact location.
Reached for comment, Delhi government officials said they are focusing on increasing the number of containment zones to curb the rising Covid cases. They defended themselves when asked about the absence of civil defence personnel, saying the presence of volunteers may have been missed by these reporters since they dress in civil clothes.
Off the record, however, some officials said that implementing the protocol isn’t always easy.
Inside Delhi’s containment zones
The 13 containment zones that ThePrint visited included three in Najafgarh, two each in West Delhi’s Paschim Puri, New Delhi’s Kali Bari Marg, and East Delhi’s Geeta Colony, and one each in North Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tilla and Mahendru Enclave, South Delhi’s Greater Kailash I, and Central Delhi’s Burari.
At Greater Kailash I, a guard employed at a house beside a containment zone — bereft of any markings listed in the protocol — said he hadn’t known it had Covid patients.
“I saw a couple of healthcare workers enter this house a couple of days ago in PPE kits. But we don’t know if it’s been listed as a containment zone or not as there are no guards or police here,” said Ramesh Singh.
For Prem Singh, who works as a security guard at a colony in Kali Bari Marg, the absence of this knowledge was a worrying prospect.
“We visit all houses to collect our fees, for instance. If we don’t even know that the house is a containment zone, then how will we know which house to avoid?” he said.
According to Covid-19 patients in some of the areas, however, such worries are unfounded.
At Majnu ka Tilla, Rajeshwar — one of five Covid patients in his family — said his neighbours weren’t informed about their house being a containment zone. “No, they didn’t do that. But we stay inside and nobody comes here,” he added.
He said they were asked if they wanted volunteers posted outside their house, but he refused “because we believe that we can take care of this ourselves”.
A Covid patient in Burari said barricading is only necessary if people don’t follow social distancing protocols. “Barricading should be done when we don’t follow the rules or if we go out despite being positive. But if we’re following quarantine rules, then there shouldn’t be a problem. Neighbours can also complain if there’s a problem,” the patient said.
Even though the lack of identification is a concern for some, others point out that the government and civic agencies have offered them much help. They said they had received regular assistance from healthcare workers, which eased their efforts to stay indoors.
“We get calls from the Delhi health department and the MCD. They ask us over the phone if we need anything like medicines. Others in the house also keep receiving calls from the government,” said Rajeshwar.
Ritesh Sharma, the neighbour of a now-recovered Covid patient in Geeta Colony, offered a similar account. “Officials from the Delhi government as well as MCD had come to give medicines to me. There were guards stationed round the clock. We were allowed to move in and out. But the (Covid-infected) family was restricted to one floor,” he said.
Gunjan, a resident of Paschim Puri who is five-months pregnant, said Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHA workers helped her get admitted to hospital when she was diagnosed with Covid-19.
“I just tested negative yesterday (Tuesday) and came home but I am still in home quarantine as a precautionary measure. Since I am pregnant, the ASHA worker and the local government dispensary are sending me medicines. They even arranged for me to go to LNJP hospital,” she said.
In areas where they are stationed, civil defence volunteers say they play a similar role.
“Our job is to ensure no one enters or leaves the house. Even if they need essentials we ensure it’s without any contact,” said Poonam Yadav, a civil defence volunteer at one of the containment zones in Najafgarh.
“Three teams work on eight-hour shifts through the day. Each area stays a containment zone for 28 days. Earlier, it was 14 days but now, after the 17th day, a test is conducted and there’s another 10 days of quarantine after that,” she added.
‘Very difficult to contain people’
When ThePrint asked officials of various districts about the apparent lack of civil defence volunteers in many areas, their responses were varied.
“Civil defence volunteers are always deployed at containment zones. But most of the time they are in plainclothes, so they may not be prominent while guarding the contained house or area,” said West Delhi District Magistrate Neha Bansal.
Naveen Agarwal, the District Magistrate for Southwest Delhi, said, “It is up to the district administration to decide whether civil defence volunteers are needed or not. We have kept civil defence volunteers because they operate on two levels. They help in ensuring people don’t leave these houses in these areas and the supply of essentials.”
A senior official in one of the district administrations said barricading is not always ideal. “Ideally, both barricades and civil defence volunteers should be present but sometimes barricading is not possible in many areas,” the official added.
The official also said that “it is very difficult to contain people and make them abide by Covid norms”.
“Earlier, with the posters outside the house, people would be scared that there are cases in the area. But now no one finds out that there’s a case and people move about freely,” the official added.
Experts say outlining a containment zone makes sense only if the infection is contained and officials ensure that protocols are enforced properly. “The idea behind a containment zone is to contain the infection. It is important to enforce all protocols. If people don’t even know that a house is a containment zone, how will this happen?” said Dr Lalit Kant, former head of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
“We have to enforce protocols at these containment zones, ensure no one is moving out or coming in, ensure that those who are coming to collect garbage are not infected. If these things are not done, it’s only a containment zone by name,” he added. “People in containment zones also need to behave responsibly.”
With the capital said to be grappling with its third wave of Covid infections, district administration officials say they are continuing to set up containment zones with a special focus on market areas.
“We are trying to scale up containment zone efforts, especially around market areas. We have started random testing in markets and whichever shopkeeper tests positive, his shop is sealed,” said Agarwal.
“We have sealed 17 shops and made eight containment zones in markets itself. We have also issued many challans for overcrowding,” Bansal added.
This report has been updated with additional information
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