Between review meetings with officials on supplying foodstuffs to migrant workers, interactions with frontline workers in the fight against the coronavirus, reviewing medical infrastructure, Telangana's municipal administration and urban development minister K T Rama Rao spoke to Deccan Chronicle on a range of issues regarding the Covid19 epidemic in Telangana state. Excerpts.
How is the crisis in Telangana state today? How have you approached it?
We approached the problem on three fronts: an effective lockdown to contain the spread of the virus which will give us time to ramp up our medical infrastructure; provide succour to people during the lockdown, especially the poor, migrant workers and daily wage-earners; and to treat people who have tested positive, testing widely and manage the contacts of those who have been infected in quarantine.
What have been the results so far of the lockdown in slowing down the spread of the disease? When is it likely to end?
Since the day we recorded the first case in March, we have been aggressive, though some decisions had to be taken with a lot of blindsides in information. We sealed the state borders. We demanded closure of international flights. We have been actively supporting the lockdown because there is no medicine or vaccine for this illness.
The reason we need a lockdown is to ensure that we are not overwhelmed by the pandemic. We used the lockdown to upgrade our medical infrastructure. We have a brand new hospital in Gachibowli, the games village has been converted into a hospital. We have used the slowing down of the virus to procure ventilators, PPEs, N95 masks, etcl. Today, with around 700 plus active cases, over 200 people cured and discharged and around 23 fatalities, we have done exceedingly well as a state. In terms of mortality rate or doubling of cases (currently Telangana has over 10 days) we are doing better than the national average. Against the national average of 250 odd tests per million, we are doing 375 per million.
Let us also reflect that India has been doing a rather satisfactory job in managing this compared to several more developed and richer countries. In a city like New York, financial capital of the world, they don’t have enough ventilators. Of course, we must not make the mistake of becoming complacent. As of now, we have a lockdown till May 7. There is a Cabinet meeting on May 5, wherein a decision will be taken. Let us wait.
How has lockdown compliance by people been?
Without a doubt, we as a state have done well. Both government and people of Telangana have to be congratulated for it. The lockdown has to be made more stringent, especially in the urban areas. Surprisingly, the best compliance in terms of social distancing and personal hygiene is being seen in villages, whereas educated people in cities are confounding us by not realising the gravity of the situation.
Returning to Telangana’s three-pronged strategy, lockdown is a necessity but how can we as a country expect the poor, daily wage-earners, migrant workers and homeless to cope with it?
There have been several reports of people wanting to go back home. Nobody can argue that the lockdown hit us all hard, but the worst affected are the poor and daily wage-earners. After the lockdown was announced, the state government simultaneously began addressing the needs of the vulnerable. We sanctioned 12 kg of rice per person in each of the 87.9 lakh families with white ration card, besides Rs 1,500 per family for minimum sustenance. We will repeat it for May also. Every day in Hyderabad, municipal administration and GHMC officials are ensuring food supplies for over one lakh people.
Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao was the first leader of any state in India to declare migrants as partners in progress. Several of us ministers and leaders met migrants and spoke to them. It is not food but the mental sense of suffocation, missing their families, mental strain of not working and a misplaced sense of fatalism that could also be driving them to go home. People must realise that while the contagion factor is high, most people who are infected will get cured.
How is the medical treatment of patients being handled?
The Telangana Institute of Medical Sciences (TIMS) was set up, which will become the finest public hospital in the state. Across the state, we have used the lockdown to shore up our in-patient curing capability to 16,000 patients. With support from private sector hospitals, if such a need arises, we can handle another 16,000-20,000 cases. If, in a worst-case scenario, the number of cases rises above that, we will use World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines to segregate cases based on severity and use home quarantine to cure. We hope we will never have such a situation. We must salute the brave selfless service of our doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, who knowing there is no known cure for coronavirus, are going to hospitals to take care of patients. We must commend our sanitation workers, who are cleaning our cities, towns and villages as part of our joint fight to defeat Covid.
Doctors have been attacked. They are seeking more security. How do you respond to that?
An attack on our heroes, our frontline soldiers is totally unacceptable. It is not acceptable even during normal times, no matter what rationalisation any attacker has to offer. There have been three cases, one in the districts and two at Gandhi Hospital. Cases have been booked. In one case, the accused is now Covid positive. The same doctors who were attacked are now treating the accused. Let us all reflect what kind of people we are if we attack those who are working hard to cure us, save us.
I learnt about this tragic case of a doctor in Tamil Nadu who passed away from coronavirus while treating patients and was denied a proper burial because of superstitions. Is it even human? Let us all introspect. There have been some cases of police excesses, lathi-charges, beating people, not just in our state but across the country. Police have been doing a wonderful job in ensuring the enforcement of the lockdown. There have been many irresponsible cases of people sitting and gossiping in public in a red zone or a containment cluster. Yes, there have been a few cases where police lost temper and acted in a way that is not acceptable.
For example, in the Wanaparthy case, where a father was beaten in front of his son, I spoke to the superintendent of police and swift action was taken. The boy has been counselled too. But media must also reflect on why it focuses more on negative news. Against each one such bad action, there have also been several amazing stories of police kindness.
Are there any positives to this crisis?
Yes, absolutely yes. Every crisis also brings opportunities. For a country like India, the huge focus on health and hygiene has been good and will continue beyond the crisis, I hope. Governments have been forced to quickly scale up medical infrastructure and I am sure we will all spend more on public health, in creating more opportunities for people to take up jobs in healthcare.
You must have followed the news of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declaring an incentive to companies that leave China. India must harness it. While there will be several economic difficulties ahead, during and after the Coronavirus threat ebbs, we can become the world’s preferred replacement destination to China.
Our own overdependence on China must end. We use them for pharma APIs to most of our manufacturing. India can really benefit in electronic manufacturing, textiles, where, imagine, we are producing less garments than even Bangladesh and Sri Lanka even as China produces four out of every ten clothes made in the world.
There have also been personal positives, reimagining our lives, spending time with our families and connecting more strongly with our hearts. Family members across generations are sitting at home, eating home-cooked food and talking. Many people are revisiting their missed New Year resolutions to get better, fitter; catching up on reading or learning new skills.
Speaking of economic hardships, you have appealed to companies not to cut jobs. But is that not almost inevitable?
It need not be. Companies must choose pay cuts over job cuts. People will understand. Once the crisis is over, companies will end up spending more in hiring and training new people. If you see, the central and state government have both given some relief in terms of cash flows -- pay property tax or others dues later. RBI has been asked to stall EMIs for a quarter. We have asked all landlords to withhold house rental collections for three months.
You have often said you want to reinvent the civic infrastructure of Hyderabad. Have you been able to use the lockdown to get some of that work done?
We have been able to spearhead some work in building roads but not much on water bodies etc. You must remember, all governments have been hit hard financially too. We have to reorient our priorities in terms of spending.
What will post-Covid normalcy be like?
I am a politician not a futurologist. I don’t know what normal would be like after all this is over. Our society has to change. Work areas will transform and social distancing and working in shifts will increase. The big fat Indian wedding has to shed weight. We are very touchy people (laughs) and must become socially more distant. But our children, who are learning about hygiene during this crisis at a young age, will be a very different people and the country they will create will be amazing.
Lastly, will you be able to watch another doomsday Hollywood thriller again without thinking how close it is to reality?
If the popcorn is good, most certainly!