New Delhi: Chennai’s Covid-19 numbers, which up until 1 April had seen a rather linear rise, skyrocketed the following month, with the figure pegged at 4,882 cases on 12 May, according to a Tamil Nadu public health official.
The single biggest reason for this exponential rise was attributed to the Koyambedu wholesale market in the city. So far, around 3,000 Covid-19 cases have been linked to the fruit and flower market, with its effect now showing up even in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
“Chennai had reported only 26 coronavirus cases by 1 April. On 14 April, the cases count was 219 but by 12 May, infections had skyrocketed and the cumulative number stood at 4,882,” said the public health official, adding that due to the Koyambedu Covid cluster, the infection has spread exponentially to several other districts such as Ariyalur and Perambalur.
While Koyambedu is the worst such offender, wholesale markets across the country have emerged as Covid-19 hotspots, primarily because they have been functioning throughout the lockdown as a part of essential services.
To make matters worse, huge crowds are integral to the operation of such wholesale markers. As such, rules of lockdown, especially related to social distancing, are often overlooked in the initial hours at the markets due to the auctions that see farmers, labourers, wholesalers, middlemen, traders and others come together. They are often without masks and do not follow other necessary precautions.
Take Delhi’s Ghazipur mandi, the second-biggest fruit and vegetable wholesale market in the national capital. It reopened 16 May after being shut down for a few days due to a coronavirus scare. Two Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) officials had tested positive for Covid-19.
Both men had also worked at Azadpur mandi — Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable market — but unlike Ghazipur, it was not closed down.
The market conundrum
The Azadpur market is a prime example of the conundrum facing authorities fending off Covid-19. Though the market has accounted for at least 33 coronavirus cases as of 15 May, it continues to function, primarily because it is the hub of essential supplies for a number of states.
Instead, authorities have sealed shops of those infected to sanitise them and trace their contacts and quarantine them.
“People working in mandi who have tested positive are being counted against their place of stay and not as part of the Azadpur APMC, which suppresses the number on the grounds that they may have got infected outside the market,” an Azadpur mandi official, who did not want to be named, told ThePrint.
“The Azadpur mandi is spread across 70 acres with 8,00-1,200 workers employed in over 1,400 shops,” the official added. “A large number of people come and go and might be carriers of the virus, which makes tracing contacts very difficult. This cannot be stopped unless the mandi is closed for a few days and everyone here is tested to get a realistic estimate of the infection,” the official said.
The Azadpur mandi also accounts for cases in other states.
According to media reports, police in Faridabad, Haryana, have begun tracking those who visited the market. Officials had found that six of the 11 positive cases reported in the city on 13 May were contacts of a person who had visited Azadpur mandi.
Market authorities, however, told ThePrint that they are doing their best to control the spread of the infection. Adeel Khan, chairman of the Azadpur APMC, told ThePrint that there is no need to close the market.
“There are two medical checkup teams stationed in the mandi and they test everyone with clear symptoms,” he said. “Visitors are also given masks along with gloves after being screened by thermal scanners.”
However, Azadpur APMC member Anil Malhotra expressed fears that there could be many more Covid-19 positive cases in the market. “Social distancing in Azadpur mandi or any other mandi is impossible as there are just too many stakeholders like sellers, buyers, middlemen (arthiya) and labour in a limited space at one time,” he said.
“The number of tests being done in the mandi is also very low as so far only 100-150 tests have happened against over a thousand people working here. The death toll and positive cases are at least five to six times higher than the official figures,” Malhotra added.
Similar story across states
It’s a similar story across the states.
Gurgaon’s largest fruit and vegetable market, Khandsa mandi, reported nine Covid-19 cases in a single day on 5 May after which the authorities tested wholesalers, retailers, and labourers from the market. Since then, the total positive cases have risen to 27.
In Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut, which is already a red zone district, authorities shut down the city’s Naveen mandi on 5 May, after 25 people from the wholesale market for fruits and vegetables tested positive. Since then, 15 more people have tested positive, taking the total number of cases from the market to 40.
The Mumbai APMC in Vashi-Navi was also closed from 11 May to 17 May after a spurt in cases from the market. As of 15 May, 350 cases have been traced back to the market.
Shutting markets a difficult proposition
Authorities are reluctant to shut these markets as they not form the backbone of essential supplies across the country, but are a lifeline for farmers. Even partial closure of the markets can lead to severe losses for vegetable and fruit farmers across the country.
Take Sanjay Khode, a watermelon farmer who also grows onions, potatoes and other vegetables. He says he incurred a loss of Rs 40,000 in the week that the Vashi mandi was shut. “I used to sell around Rs 7,000 to Rs 11,000 worth of fruit and vegetable produce every day, but when the mandi is shut, my harvested produce rots in my fields,” he said.
“Even in the initial days, when the timing was curtailed and mandi was closed for a day or two, we suffered huge losses as we have to pay double the transport and labour fees of loading and unloading the produce from mandi to home,” Khode added.
Jairam Singh, 48, who cultivates brinjal at Kithauli village near Meerut, says he has been struggling ever since Naveen mandi shut. “A sack of Brinjal (25 kg) that used to fetch me between Rs 200 and Rs 250 at the mandi is now going for just Rs 80,” he said. “I have to hire at least two to three farm labourers to harvest the produce. This, combined with packaging, costs around Rs 1,000 to 1,200. But if I get this type of return, it’s better for me to let the brinjal rot in the fields or feed it to my cows.”
The closure of mandis also severely affects the sale of perishable items such as vegetables and fruits. According to the Vegetable Growers Association of India, about 50 per cent of the arrivals of vegetables and fruits have been affected, while the farmers are suffering a major loss due to ban on vehicles from many places to other states and cities.