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How political leadership and bureaucrats handled Pune’s Covid crisis

Pune: On July 27 last year, Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar held a meeting in Pune to review the Covid situation in the city
PUBLISHED ON MAR 07, 2021 07:46 PM IST

Pune: On July 27 last year, Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar held a meeting in Pune to review the Covid situation in the city. During the meeting, a decision was taken to set up two jumbo hospitals in Pune to deal with the rising cases of infection. The day saw 1,160 fresh cases, taking the active case tally to 18,546, of which 744 were in a critical condition and 97 were on ventilators. The city’s positivity rate of that week was 19.80%.

Already late on announcement, the two facilities – one at the College of Engineering in Pune (CoEP) and another at Annasaheb Magar ground in Pimpri-Chinchwad – were to come up by August 20. However, the delay in erecting these Covid care centres and subsequent issues about management of CoEP hospital only deteriorated patients’ confidence in the facility.

The result was additional burden on already strained network of private and public hospitals. During July, August and September, Pune faced severe shortage of beds, and as the caseload began to rise, patients began to be turned away from hospitals and many couldn’t receive adequate care on time. Even the city’s fatalities also grew sharply – at one point it crossed the 100- mark.

If the virus situation was getting worse every passing day, political leadership was not much visible on the ground unlike in Mumbai. While Pawar was regularly monitoring the situation by spending weekends, instructing officials to tighten the prevention norms, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray preferred to observe it through video conferencing.

He made a brief visit to the city only once following criticism, though it failed to convince his political detractors.

Realising the looming crisis, the state health department activated the recently constructed Sassoon building with additional beds in the initial phase. The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) also turned one of its buildings in Baner into a 300- bed hospital.

As the city stands at the door of another wave with the daily caseload crossing 1,900 on Saturday (March 6), authorities are more proactive as they have already kept jumbo hospital ready while instructing to restart Covid care centres

All this while, Pune, like the rest of the country, was witnessing several restrictions as well as unlocking.

Pune was among the first cities that faced restrictions after the first case was reported on March 9. The then divisional commissioner Deepak Mhaisekar monitored the situation with PMC machinery also stepping in. Sinhgad road where the first Covid positive couple stay was sealed while contact tracing was ordered. After Mhaisekar’s retirement, Saurabh Rao has been dealing with the situation in the district. The initial aggression in tracing contacts was missing post September when the state government announced the “My Family My Responsibility” campaign.

Pune’s public transport buses were off the road since March 24 for over 150 days for common citizens when the lockdown began. Trains and state transport buses too stopped plying while gates of gardens were closed. Roads were deserted and residents remained locked inside their houses.

This was unprecedented. However, stricter lockdowns in two phases – first between March and June and another for 10 days during July – slowed the spread of virus.

If the orders for lockdown came straight from the Centre and state, its lifting created confusion in Pune as multiple officials asserted their authority. For Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, two municipal corporations were given responsibility while in rural parts of district, the collector decided about unlocking based on orders from Maharashtra chief secretary. Multiple orders in adjoining areas created confusion, which was later sorted out as things settled.

One of the much appreciated part during the crisis was the war room started by PMC. It maintained area wise data in real time, which helped authorities concentrate on hotspot during the rapidly changing situation. However, the number of samples tested on daily basis was not as high as Mumbai despite caseload being almost equal.

During the pandemic, Pune earned the distinction of being India’s highest infected city. For this, people too were responsible as compliance of Covid appropriate behaviour was missing. As city looks at another Covid wave, authorities and people need to be proactive.

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