Tamil Nadu’s decision to reimpose an intense lockdown for 12 days from June 19 is an admission of the government’s stark failure in controlling the pandemic in its capital, Chennai.
The State’s vacillating response to the initial wave of infections, its propensity to blame it all on the Tablighi, then the Koyambedu market and then the Tamils coming home from abroad and its shuffling of public health bureaucrats bore clear signs of dithering and finding scapegoats instead of concerted action.
The deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam seemed to react by virtually isolating himself while the chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, who was always in the thick of it, flitted from listening to scientific advice from epidemiologists to ignoring it while ordering the easing of curbs.
Finally, it took stern advice from the epidemiology panel for the State to go in for another spell of a strict lockdown in the hope that the people would respond with the discipline needed to stop the virus from further spreading.
Lockdowns do not bring unalloyed benefits except towards trying to keep the infection at bay while the medical infrastructure is beefed up. But the manner in which the CM reiterated that talk of another lockdown was "just rumour” and then did a flip-flop a couple of days later was indicative of his indecision.
His government had even informed the Madras high court that a lockdown was not on the cards. Curiously, the CM threatened to file cases against those predicting there would be another lockdown.
Chennai’s problems are different from Mumbai’s Dharavi in the sense that the city has close to 2,000 slum clusters, many along the Buckingham Canal and the Cooum River banks, thus presenting a widespread area in which the population density is high and social distancing cannot be followed. With 46,000 cases by June 15, of which 33,000 were in Chennai, the State of Tamil Nadu faces a challenge that can only be contained by the tried and tested route of painstaking tracking and treating the ill.
It is clear the original 3T methods of testing, tracing and treating the infected while putting all contacts in strict home quarantine had slackened and the numbers had spiralled to the extent of close to 2,000 cases a day in the state and near 1,500 in the capital over the last 10 days, making Tamil Nadu the second most infected place after Maharashtra.
Three or four major metropolitan centres have failed in the country. Of them, Chennai may have exacerbated the problem by lackadaisical enforcement of controls and by fudging death figures to make the ridiculous claim of the world’s least mortality rate.
Outbreaks are now a problem the world over, including in Beijing, in Europe and in the US where various states are reopening. Considering how the spread of the infection, including by the asymptomatic, has queered the pitch, mitigation after mass testing is the recommended route.
To achieve a degree of that and follow it up towards flattening the curve needs determined official action. No one has all the answers but scientists have been pointing in the right direction all along. More than the restless people, it’s the leaders who have failed at a time when the pandemic was the biggest ever test of leadership.