New Delhi: Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has sought to dismiss charges of laxity in his state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, blaming international travellers and those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi in March for an increase in the number of cases in the state in an exclusive interview with ThePrint.
Gujarat has been witnessing a spike in Covid-19 cases, and currently has the fourth-highest number of cases in the country, at over 15,000, after Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. It has registered 960 deaths until Thursday, 28 May.
Asked about the feeling in the Muslim community that the Tablighi Jamaat issue is being used to target them, Rupani said it is only after the people who attended the Jamaat event entered Gujarat that “the Covid-19 infection spread like a forest fire”.
“Our prime aim since the day Covid-19 entered Gujarat is to ensure the welfare of the community at large, irrespective of the caste, community etc. Let me also remind you of the fact that Gujarat did not register a spike in Covid-19 cases until the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi,” Rupani said.
“When the people who attended the Jamaat entered Gujarat, the Covid-19 infection spread like a forest fire. The data is proof of the same. We came to the conclusion that a large number of cases are due to those who attended the Jamaat only after tracing the travel history of the people affected with Covid-19,” the chief minister continued.
“At the same time, a large number of people from the Jamaat hid their travel history and did not cooperate with the administration. Due to this, we had to take legal actions against them,” he said.
The city of Ahmedabad alone has over 11,000 cases and over 760 deaths, making it a major hotspot after Mumbai and Delhi, and Rupani attributed most of these cases to the Jamaat event in Delhi.
“Around 75 per cent of the cases in Ahmedabad are from 25 per cent of the geographical region. This 25 per cent is in the Walled City area, and is dominated by those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi,” he said.
“At the same time, I would like to tell you that this issue is not being used to target a minority community. The members of the Jamaat acted irresponsibly in such crucial times, and everyone has been talking about it. Six and a half crore Gujaratis are our brothers and sisters and we do not discriminate or favour anyone on the basis of caste, creed, religion etc,” he insisted.
Two waves of infections
The first wave of cases in Gujarat was reported in March through the arrival of international flyers, and Rupani attributed it to Gujarati people’s international connect.
“Gujarati people are known for their business and entrepreneurial spirit, with a strong network of diaspora across the globe. By the time international flights were called off on 25 March, a large number of people had flown back to the state. The first wave of cases was registered through these people. The passengers underwent thermal screening at airports and were put under quarantine for 14 days,” Rupani said.
The second wave of cases, the CM continued, came through the people who entered Gujarat after attending the Tablighi Jamaat event at the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque in Delhi.
“It became a challenge as these people not only hid their travel history but they also met a large number of people after coming back to Gujarat. Majority of the people who came back to the state after attending this event in Delhi live in the 600-year-old Walled City of Ahmedabad — a densely populated area,” he argued.
Rupani said the government undertook “intensive surveillance” and “aggressive testing” to trace and identify the infected persons. For this, a team of 750 health officials were out on the streets of Ahmedabad for seven days.
“At the same time, we put a curfew in these areas to do focused testing and stop the spread of the infection. These steps helped us limit the rising Covid-19 cases in Ahmedabad,” he said.
High death rate
On the high fatality rate in Gujarat, Rupani said a detailed analysis of the deaths revealed that 60 per cent of the people who succumbed to Covid-19 suffered from co-morbid conditions such as hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart ailments etc. It was also observed that a majority of those admitted to government hospitals were either critical or had severe infections. The mortality rate also increased due to these factors.
The chief minister pointed out that the rate of patients’ discharge in Gujarat is more than 45 per cent, much higher than the national average.
“Numbers do not matter so much at a time when governments across the globe are on their toes to curb the spread of Covid-19. Coronavirus is a pandemic and we must not engage in comparisons. What matters is the strategy adopted by the government to control the spread and save its population through the best medical facilities,” Rupani said.
He explained that the state had geared up for the situation since early March, even before the first Covid-19 case was registered.
“As a pre-emptive measure, we had screened around 20,000 international passengers; their travel history was traced and they were put under quarantine,” he said.
“Gujarat was the first state in India to come up with dedicated Covid-19 hospitals. We readied 2,200-bed Covid hospitals (1,200 beds in Ahmedabad, 500 in Surat, 250 each in Rajkot and Vadodara) in no time. At the same time, we also announced the setting up of a dedicated Covid-19 hospital with a 100-bed capacity in each and every district,” Rupani said.
“Today, we have more than 12,000 isolation beds in dedicated Covid hospitals and another 4,500 beds in Covid health centres. We have also developed dedicated Covid care centres with more than 26,000 beds,” he said.
Vegetable and fruit vendors as ‘super-spreaders’
Gujarat had categorised vegetable and fruit vendors as “super-spreaders” of Covid-19, which the chief minister said was done to “do focused testing and ensure their well-being amidst the lockdown”.
“Since these people generally deal with a large number of people on a daily basis due to their business, we decided to categorise them so as to contain the spread of infection, if at all. Hence, we put a complete restriction on the sale of vegetables, fruits and groceries for a week between 8 and 15 May in Ahmedabad, to conduct intensive testing for a week,” Rupani said.
“We screened more than 33,000 people, collected more than 6,500 samples of vegetable and fruit vendors, out of which 709 were found positive. This, in no way, suggests community transmission in the city,” he added.
Concerned over the rising cases in Gujarat, the central government had deputed a team led by AIIMS doctor Randeep Guleria to visit the state and assist the healthcare workers. Rupani termed the visit fruitful and said they supported the efforts of the government, saying “our treatment protocols are at par with the protocols followed at AIIMS”.
The Gujarat government came under fire for the use of “sub-standard” ventilators, with the opposition Congress demanding a judicial probe into the use of ‘Dhaman-1’ ventilators.
However, Rupani defended the choice of ventilator, saying the manufacturer of ‘Dhaman-1’ had acquired artificial lungs from the Michigan State University — the only producer of artificial lungs — to conduct the necessary trials, and was proven to be successful.
“For patients with medium symptoms, who face difficulty in breathing, we tend to use a simple ventilator to supply oxygen. ‘Dhaman-1’ is efficient for such cases. Those who are critically ill are put on sophisticated ventilators, and we have sufficient a number of sophisticated ventilators to address critical patients as of now,” the CM said.
“We have more than 1,600 high-end ventilators in the state at the moment. However, we are in the process of acquiring more high-end ventilators to be prepared for a worst-case scenario. To augment our capacity, we are in the process of acquiring ‘Dhaman-3’, an advanced version of ‘Dhaman-1’,” Rupani said.
Rupani said the Gujarat government has started taking a number of measures to bolster revenue, which has taken a hit due to Covid-19 and the lockdown.
“We began to restore normalcy during the second phase of the lockdown. We resumed market yards (APMCs) across the state in a phased manner from 15 April. The decision helped us mitigate the concerns of the farmers, who were ready with their harvest and were waiting for market access. So far, the farmers have sold more than 64 lakh quintals of produce in more than 140 APMCs,” he detailed.
“From 20 April, we decided to resume industrial units in rural areas outside municipal limits. Export-oriented industrial units, outside the containment zones within cities, were also allowed to resume operations after 25 April,” the CM said.
“In the next phase, we allowed small businesses and shops in 156 municipalities, as well as in the districts of Jamnagar and Junagadh from 3 May. Similar relaxations were given to small businesses and shops of Rajkot from 14 May onwards,” Rupani added.
Once PM Narendra Modi announced the ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package, Rupani said the Gujarat government also made its contribution to the mission.
“We have introduced the Aatmanirbhar Gujarat Sahay Package, worth Rs 5,000 crore,” he said, adding that the state government will provide loans up to Rs 1 lakh to small traders, shop owners, barbers etc.
“They will have to pay 2 per cent interest and the remaining 6 per cent will be borne by the state government. These measures will go a long way in reviving the economy in a post-Covid-19 world,” Rupani said.
On the state of the migrant crisis in Gujarat, the chief minister said his government was aware that the workers would face difficulties as soon as Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown.
“To ensure their welfare, we had directed the companies to not fire them from jobs and provide them with timely wages. For this, the department of labour and employment facilitated the disbursement of wages worth Rs 1,000 crore for the month of April 2020,” he said.
“When they wished to return to their home states, we facilitated them by operating shramik special trains in accordance with necessary safety protocols, potable water and food. I am happy to share that Gujarat has arranged more than one-third of the total shramik trains run in India as of 25 May. Around 13 lakh migrants have gone to their respective states on 885 trains,” Rupani added.