How Mumbai’s Dharavi contained Covid outbreak
On a night in the early days of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when paranoia about the spread of the virus was high, misinformation rampant, and a strict nation-wide lockdown at its peak, a handful of labourers housed in a dim-lit shed in Kurla’s commercial area built 30 beds from scratch, pulling off a feat overnight that allowed Dharavi to assemble its first quarantine centre for patients – at Ruparel College in Dadar.
This 30-bed quarantine centre was an example of the collective effort on part of the civic administration at G-North ward in Dharavi, and of the people, to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in their area. It soon expanded to a 100-bed quarantine centre, around the start of the concept of large-scale institutional quarantine as one of the means to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in Dharavi. It became part of the ‘Dharavi Model’ that has been adopted world-wide as an effective way of ‘breaking the chain’ to curb the spread of the infection.
Dharavi – India’s largest slum, characterised by a very high population density, small homes, and inherent reliance on community toilets and street food – had become a Covid-19 hotspot during the first wave of the pandemic in April and May 2020. From there, timely administrative intervention and discipline of its residents has created the Dharavi model.
Kiran Dighavkar, assistant commissioner of the G/North ward, who has been at the helm of these efforts has now documented Dharavi’s battle against the infection, with other anecdotes such as this one. Dighavkar has written about his experience as the ward officer in-charge of the area, the challenges of quarantine and social distancing in a slum pocket that houses 653,000 people in less than 2sqkm, and about how he came up with the “Dharavi model”, in a book titled “The Dharavi Model: How Asia’s largest slum defeated Covid-19”. The book was launched on Tuesday at the hands of chief minister Uddhav Thackeray.
Thackeray, in his foreword to the book, said, “In the middle of the studies and speculations about the impending waves, the success of the Dharavi model has been a beacon of hope, not only for the state of Maharashtra, but also for the world.”
In a chapter titled ‘Needle in a hay stack’, Dighavkar sums up challenges encountered right from the start of the outbreak, Dighavkar quotes Sandeep, a resident of the slum, saying: “Dharavi is not just a slum. It is a well-knit joint family where everyone knows everyone by name, we know what happens in each other’s lives, we don’t keep our doors shut. There is always someone walking in and out. You can imagine if any kind of stoppage comes in the community, what will it lead to in the end?”
“Using community toilets and consuming street food are an integral part of life for these residents,” said Dighavkar. “Contact tracing proves to be challenging.”
The book also documents statistics that the G/North ward meticulously maintained to understand and curb the spread of the virus. Dharavi was mapped into 13 high-intensity zones. A daily dashboard of area-wise outbreak of cases in Dharavi was maintained. BMC provided door-to-door food packets to residents in these quarantine centres, so they would not be tempted to leave their homes for supplies, and conducted large-scale testing through door-to-door campaigns and fever clinics.
Even before the first case was detected in Dharavi on April 1, 2020, the civic administration had begun to compile lists of all residents of the area with recent travel history outside the country, and call them daily to check for symptoms.
The book has recorded accounts of front-line workers and law enforcement officers, and heart breaking stories from residents who lost family members to the infection. “During the pandemic, people complained of boredom sitting in their homes. While people were tired of resting and being at home, we were longing for some rest and to be at home,” Dighavkar said.
While Dharavi and its people have been better equipped to handle the second wave with the Dharavi Model, they are now facing challenges around vaccination of its population. Dighavkar said, “The rate of vaccination was seen to be high in higher income groups, while slums and chawl dwellers were still hesitant. It was, and is of much importance to spread awareness and increase a demand for vaccination in this group. In spite of the efforts and measures, a large gap is yet to be bridged.”