COVID-19 cases in Gujarat have seen a five-fold increase in a month, reporting over 1,400 cases in a day on Friday, with the past week reporting a significant surge in the daily reporting on March 11 when the state saw 710 new COVID-19 cases.
A look at the reasons behind the surge and the Gujarat government’s response:
Why is Gujarat reporting a surge?
The surge in Gujarat is mainly attributed to the inter-state travel and the international cricket match in Ahmedabad. Surat on Thursday reported 324 of the total 1,276 cases, the highest in the state, which the administration attributes to the increase in marriage-related and business travel to and from Surat and other states given its high migrant population. The surge in Ahmedabad, which reported 304 cases, is mainly due to the cricket matches that were thrown open to the public at the newly inaugurated world’s largest Narendra Modi stadium in Motera, say civic officials.
Deputy health commissioner at Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) Dr Ashish Naik said, “Firstly, after February 14, a large number of people went to other states for marriage and other programmes and on returning brought the Covid infection with them. Besides that, five cases of UK strain, which is highly infectious, had come to light in Surat, and finally and more importantly, people felt that COVID-19 had gone away with fewer cases being reported and as a result they let their guards down and stopped following COVID19 guidelines. They roamed around, attended marriages and birthday parties.”
State health officials say there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the UK or South Africa variants led to a surge . MA Pandya, mission director of National Health Mission (NHM) division, attributed the surge to the “movement from neighbouring states”. “Say if there are 100 cases, 30 per cent upon contact tracing are seen with travel history or were in contact with someone with a travel history. There has also been a complacency with people, especially with the ongoing vaccination, ignoring COVID-19-appropriate behaviour. They are not even wearing masks properly,” he said.
The rise in number of public events
Gujarat saw elections to municipal corporations, municipalities, district and taluka panchayats in February, which were due in December but postponed because of Covid-19. Thus, there were large-scale political rallies and gatherings across the state, largely unchecked by the administration.
While the state health department has been reluctant in admitting it, a division bench of the Gujarat High Court had observed, “Just when things started looking a little better and the conditions in the major cities across the State of Gujarat started improving, the elections of the various civic bodies at different levels and the carefree attitude of the people has once again spoilt the show and has put us back into a situation of concern.”
Even at half the capacity of 1.32 lakh, the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad would see over 60,000 people watching matches till March 15, first the India-England test match followed by the T-20, when the Gujarat Cricket Association finally decided to hold the matches behind closed doors.
Officials at the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) have been blaming the matches for the spike leading to curbs and extended curfew hours in the city. An official said just when the vaccination drive was picking up in the city, it was a case of “one step forward, two steps back.”
What has the HC said?
In its latest order on February 26, on the suo motu public interest litigation pertaining to COVID19 matters, the Gujarat High Court remarked, “What cannot be cured has to be endured” It did not pull up authorities and suggested five steps to follow, including provisioning adequate beds, increased testing in major cities, enforcing mask rule and considering imposing a guest-list limit to celebrations such as weddings and other public functions.
In September 2020, Gujarat was reporting as many as 1,400 cases or more daily when the High Court had observed that the administration has been playing “on the backfoot” until then by reacting to the infection spread in specific districts when it is too late. At the time, the court had also appealed to the public at large to remedy its carefree and callous attitude. The order had noted, “We get to see hundreds of young men and women, boys and girls gathered on the public streets in the evening hours, more particularly, at the most happening places in Ahmedabad. Most of those are to be seen without wearing masks. They are hardly to be seen maintaining the protocol of social distancing which is an order of the day. We are sure the same must be the scenario in other cities and towns also, which is very unfortunate. Unfortunately, they are all from an educated class of Society. If this continues, then we will never be able to overcome the pandemic.”
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The cases went past 1,600 a day post Diwali when the state government in an affidavit before the court had attributed the spike to “unfavourable environmental conditions and the increased rate of human interactions due to the festival season”. The Gujarat HC chief justice, too, had expressed shock and concern at the no-holds-barred festivity celebration, and noted, “Judges are travelling 500-600 kilometres to attend weddings of other judges. Not their children’s wedding or their brother’s or sister’s wedding! What to say to the other public when my own judges are travelling…”
In December 2020, the Gujarat HC took the state government to task following a viral video that surfaced of an engagement party of the granddaughter of former BJP legislator Kanti Gamit, held at Tapi, where thousands could be seen dancing in an open ground.
The HC bench court had not minced any words to comment, “Whatever damage was to be done, was done. How many people were there at that particular venue? And the man has the audacity to say that I had invited only 2,000 people and that he does not know how so many people came all of a sudden! Shocking!…What was the SP (Superintendent of Police) doing at that point of time?…How did he permit the host to continue with the function? All your efforts are going in vain…all the hard work being put by the special teams formed by you, are going in vain…very unfortunate. Is the police department, right from the rank of superintendent to an ordinary constable, not answerable for this event?”
Following the court’s comments, the same day the state government had invoked IPC section 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide).
The curbs now
All offline classes and exams were suspended in schools and undergraduate courses in colleges in the eight municipal corporations of Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot, Vadodara, Bhavnagar, Junagadh, Jamnagar and Gandhinagar. Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot, Vadodara continue to remain under a night curfew with AMC having added an extra hour to the curfew, from 9 pm instead of 10 pm, beginning Friday. The curfew stays till March 31, while the decision on classes and exams is valid till April 10. In Surat, the SMC has made seven-day quarantine mandatory for those coming from outside Gujarat, while business hours have been reduced at the textile markets. Travellers in Surat have to self-declare their health status through a form. Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat will see all parks and gardens, libraries, beaches and other public spaces closed on weekends. AMC has additionally closed malls and multiplexes on the weekend beginning Saturday and suspended all intra-city bus services. Eight municipal corporation cities have been directed to close all tuition classes until April 10.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has clarified that there is no lockdown coming. Ahmedabad civic officials suspect the spike in infection rate to continue till Holi, which is at the end of this month. The curbs are likely to be in place until then. Although this wave of Covid-19 has not reported a high fatality, the number of people on ventilators has been rising sharply. The Gujarat government has asked all its medical college students to return to COVID-19 duties such as surveillance, testing, tracking and treating operations. Along with MBBS students, nursing, dental, physiotherapy and AYUSH students too will be engaged in COVID-19 duty. Intern doctors have been ordered to present themselves before respective municipal commissioners or district magistrates for deployment details.
So far, only 5.90 lakh people have got both doses of the vaccine of the total 31.12 lakh who have been inoculated till March 17. After the video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government decided to keep vaccination centres open for longer hours and also doubled its daily target of vaccination.
AMC has seen the maximum vaccine coverage in the state across all 33 districts and eight municipal corporations with over 1.93 lakh partially vaccinated and another 63,000 fully vaccinated with two doses, according to the CoWIN Dashboard.
The momentum has picked up especially after the vaccination eligibility opened up for the elderly population as well as those aged 45-59 years with serious comorbidities.
(With inputs from Ritu Sharma, Kamaal Saiyed and Aditi Raja)