New Delhi: At least 30 IAS and IPS officers across India, many of whom were at the forefront of efforts to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, have tested positive for the disease in the last two-and-a-half-months.
From long meetings within closed doors to field visits in the line of duty, they had little scope to escape infection.
Each positive diagnosis doesn’t just force the patient into quarantine or hospitals, but every high-risk contact has to go into isolation as well.
This, officers told ThePrint, has created an additional strain for government staff as it battles one of the biggest challenges the world has faced in decades.
“It has impacted work, especially at a time like this, when you want all hands on the deck. It’s not only about one officer getting infected. Along with the officer, at least a dozen people, including their staff, colleagues, etc who were in touch with them are immediately asked to quarantine themselves,” said a Union Labour Ministry officer. “This disrupts the work for a fortnight.”
Dozens of govt staff affected too
The IAS and IPS officers who tested positive include a 27-year-old subdivisional magistrate in Bihar’s Nalanda district and a deputy commissioner supervising crowd control measures at Tamil Nadu’s Koyambedu wholesale market, which stayed open through the lockdown and emerged as a hotspot.
In Madhya Pradesh, four top IAS officers posted in the health department — including health secretary Pallavi Jain Govil and the managing director of MP Public Health Services Corporation J. Vijaykumar, who is also the state CEO of Ayushman Bharat — tested positive in April, as did close to 32 health department officials at different levels, paralysing work in the unit.
Many in the state blame the initial spike in cases to the near-shutdown of the health department because of the surge of cases reported there. State health secretary Govil was subsequently transferred to the tribal welfare department for her alleged lapses in handling the situation.
In Maharashtra, three senior IAS officers, two of whom were closely working on managing the Covid crisis in the state, tested positive this month.
Of the three officials, one was part of the team ensuring the safe return of migrants to their native places, while another was working in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Covid control force.
The condition of two of these IAS officers, of the principal secretary rank, was critical and they had to be administered plasma therapy, ThePrint has learnt. Their condition is said to be stable now.
The third civil servant, a secretary-level IAS officer living in Yashodhan, one of the most prestigious government residential buildings located at Churchgate, is asymptomatic.
At least 25 others living in the building, including house helps and drivers, have tested positive too.
At the central government level, Union defence secretary Ajay Kumar, disinvestment secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey and two joint secretaries posted in the labour ministry and the legislative department of the law ministry also tested positive this month.
Besides IAS and IPS officers, close to 200 government staff posted across ministries in Delhi and state government offices have been diagnosed with Covid-19.
In the labour ministry alone, at least 42 officers and other staff, including a joint secretary, tested positive for Covid-19 this month.
IPS officers infected
Most of the IPS officers diagnosed with coronavirus so far have been from the southern states.
In Karnataka, IPS officer Ajay Hillori tested positive this week and is undergoing treatment. Karnataka’s additional director general of police (ADGP), law and order, Amar Kumar Pandey, who was involved in bringing the elusive underworld don Ravi Poojary back to India earlier this year, has gone into quarantine after his secretary tested positive.
In Tamil Nadu, a deputy commissioner of police supervising crowd-control measures and sales at Koyambedu market during the lockdown tested positive on 4 May. He has now recovered from coronavirus.
Three more IPS officers, including the joint commissioner of police, Chennai South, have tested positive. Two of them tested positive in May and one earlier this month.
According to sources in the Chennai police, approximately 830 personnel have been infected with the virus so far.
In Telangana, an IAS officer posted at the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation tested positive in June and is in home isolation. Three IPS officers also tested positive in the state this month. Two of these are of the additional commissioner of police rank, and the third a deputy inspector general-rank officer.
Sources in Telangana Police said the DIG-rank officer may have contracted the virus after 14 policemen working at his branch were infected.
Altogether four IPS officers have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the state, the fourth one having participated in the distribution of essentials among the poor.
In Gujarat, 1997-batch IAS officer Hareet Shukla, secretary in the science and technology department, tested positive in the first week of June. Shukla has been handling procurements for Covid treatment at government hospitals.
In Jammu & Kashmir, Dheeraj Gupta, principal secretary in the urban development department, contracted coronavirus in late May.
‘Not much can be done’
Officers told ThePrint that the nature of the epidemic is such that there is not much they can do to prevent infection, except adhering to the basic protocol of social distancing as far as possible and sanitising their hands frequently.
Ashish Kumar Singh, principal secretary to the Maharashtra chief minister, said, “People living and working with us are testing positive and one doesn’t know they are carrying the virus until they test positive. So, ultimately, however much we do, the only main precaution is to take care of our own immunity.” Singh also lives in Yashodhan building.
He added, “We are all rigorously following basic norms like sanitising our hands very often. There is a sanitiser in almost every corner of Mantralaya now. We wear masks and keep windows open as much as possible, and follow the protocol of quarantine if someone we have interacted with tests positive.”
But with back-to-back meetings inside closed rooms, it is not always easy to maintain social distancing protocols.
“In office, though we try to hold virtual meetings, it is not possible all the time. How much can you avoid meeting your staff and colleagues for work? And how do you ensure that you are not in contact with somebody who is asymptomatic? said an urban development ministry officer who works at Delhi’s Nirman Bhavan. “It is very challenging.”
Professor Giridhar R. Babu, head of lifecourse epidemiology at the private-public nonprofit Public Health Foundation of India, said civil servants and politicians are vulnerable because of the nature of their work.
“In times like these, they have to attend meetings and go on field visits. The only way to protect oneself in such a situation is to take necessary precautions like wearing a mask, frequently washing hands and trying to avoid crowds,” he said.