Bhopal: Madhya Pradesh seems to be in trouble in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only have the coronavirus cases in the state spiked to 426 as of Friday morning, with 33 deaths, the government machinery has come to a near-standstill because many top officials of the health department, as well as some in the police, have tested positive.
State health department sources in Bhopal say at least 32 people who work there have tested positive for Covid-19. And what’s more, senior health officials who contracted the virus seem to have sidestepped the rules they created for the public.
The affected officials include Pallavi Jain Govil, principal secretary of the health department, J. Vijaya Kumar, director of health services, Veena Sinha, additional director in the health department, and deputy director Virendra Kumar Chaudhary, all of whom tested positive for Covid-19 in the first week of April. However, despite showing Covid-19 symptoms, the officials attended numerous meetings on the pandemic, including those featuring Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chief Secretary Iqbal Singh Bains.
Now, Health Commissioner Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, Additional Chief Secretary Anurag Jain and many other officials have had to self-quarantine.
At the moment, with the health department is virtually out of commission, CM Chouhan and Chief Secretary Bains are directly running operations, with help from Kidwai and Govil, who are working out of quarantine.
Meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission (MPHRC) has served a notice to the state government, asking for an explanation on why the top civil servants delayed hospitalisation, despite being in contact with foreign-returned relatives and even exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms.
Vivek Tankha, a Congress Rajya Sabha MP from the state, tweeted about the notice.
Guidelines for #COVID2019india are binding for all – rich or small – powerful or weak. MP State Human Rights Commission strict notice to Chief Secy MP has affirmed it. Within hours all officials of health Dept ( 32) hv reached covid hospitals – life saver for many. Get well
— Vivek Tankha (@VTankha) April 7, 2020
The political problem
In the second week of March, Madhya Pradesh was in political turmoil as 22 MLAs had rebelled against Kamal Nath’s Congress government. Among them was health minister Tulsi Silawat, who was in Bengaluru with the other MLAs and returned a day after Kamal Nath resigned, paving the way for the BJP, led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan, to form the government.
Chouhan took oath on 23 March, a day before PM Narendra Modi announced the 21-day nationwide lockdown. But since then, MP has had no ministers to help with the crisis, leaving everything to Chouhan and officials.
Soon, the number of cases in the state began rising, especially in three major cities — capital Bhopal, commercial capital Indore, and religious centre Ujjain.
On 1 April, Chouhan removed state health commissioner Prateek Hajela from his post, citing gross negligence. IAS officer Hajela, who had been in the limelight for being the coordinator of the National Register of Citizens exercise in Assam, had been transferred back by the Supreme Court to his parent cadre Madhya Pradesh in 2019 after he had cited threats to his life.
A senior official of the health department told ThePrint that it was just a perception that there were lapses in functioning, but there were no instances of gross negligence when Hajela was removed.
Hajela was replaced by senior officer Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, who had served under Chouhan’s previous administration as the state’s mission director for the National Health Mission.
Escalation of the crisis
Three days after Kidwai took charge as health commissioner, Madhya Pradesh’s troubles began compounding — Indore turned into a Covid-19 hotspot, and Vijay Kumar, director of health services, tested positive. A second report a day later confirmed that he had the Covid-19 infection.
But even before news of his positive test could circulate in the corridors of the health department, other senior officers Govil, Sinha and Chaudhary all tested positive too. And in some cases, it turned out they had been attended meetings despite knowing that they were at risk because of close relatives who had returned from the US.
Govil had been praised by CM Chouhan, who had said: “It’s with assistance from officials like you that we will soon get rid of the infection from the state.”
However, Govil’s son had returned from the US on 16 March, and did not go to hospital to get checked, even though he remained in quarantine, according to a government statement in her defence.
“…As per the advisory issued by the government of India, US was not among the 12 nations listed by the government notification for restrictions to be observed,” it stated.
“He was tested at the Delhi airport then remained under home quarantine till 30th without any symptoms, he is healthy. After Pallavi Jain Govil tested positive on 4th, after that other family members were tested and none of the symptoms of corona were found in them (sic),” the statement continued.
“Guidelines related to coronavirus issued by the government of India clarifies in patients who have been confirmed to be infected with coronavirus but other symptoms are not reflected, they should stay in quarantine at home and monitor their health. It is told that because Mrs Pallavi Jain does not have symptoms and she is healthy, so she was not admitted to the hospital.”
But whether there was negligence or not, the fact remains that Bhopal’s VVIP areas — Shyamla Hills, where the CM and former CMs live; Malviya Nagar, where Raj Bhavan is located; and Char Imli, where the chief secretary, ministers and other senior officials stay — have had to be turned into containment zones.
None of the officials who has contracted the coronavirus was available to speak to ThePrint.
By Thursday evening, Madhya Pradesh had declared a total of 46 coronavirus hotspots in 15 districts. The previous day, it had announced the decision to completely seal Indore, Bhopal and Ujjain, and announced the first death of a doctor in India due to the coronavirus. Indore has registered 221 cases and 24 deaths, while Bhopal has seen 98 cases.
Activists raise alarm
The situation in MP is now “alarming”, especially in Indore and Bhopal, according to several activists who work in the health sector.
“Each day, death figures are rising in Indore and Bhopal. The state government should immediately set up a task force and release an independent status report of all Covid-19 patients admitted in various hospitals of Madhya Pradesh to understand the real situation, which will help it work faster and more effectively,” said Amulya Nidhi, health activist and member of the Supreme Court Committee on Silicosis.
S.R. Azad of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan added: “The state should increase the rate of testing. Unless tests are done, it is impossible to measure the size of the crisis the state is headed towards.
“The state needs to increase capacity at the level of sample collection as well as testing facilities. The current situation on the ground indicates that until now, frontline health workers’ training has not been completed. The state has not engaged with public health experts, doctors and health activists, and there is a lack of collective coordination.”