5 lessons from Tamil Nadu’s book: How the state is fighting Covid-19

Updated on Apr 07, 2020 10:05 PM IST

The month of April, though barely a week old, has been brutal for Tamil Nadu in its fight against coronavirus. In a flash, the number of Covid-19 cases soared from 67 at the end of March to 690 as on April 7.

A vendor sells home-stitched masks during the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic, in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, Sunday, April 5, 2020.(PTI photo)
A vendor sells home-stitched masks during the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic, in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, Sunday, April 5, 2020.(PTI photo)
ByTR Vivek

The month of April, though barely a week old, has been brutal for Tamil Nadu in its fight against coronavirus. In a flash, the number of Covid-19 cases soared from 67 at the end of March to 690 as on April 7. Of these, 637 are linked to those returning from the Tablighi Jamaat conference that was held in Delhi in mid-March. Here are five ways in which the government, faced with the prospect of an exponential spread of the virus, has acted to bring the situation under control.

Surveillance, containment: Chennai is one among the 10 worst-affected cities in the country, recording at least 149 cases. On April 5, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) launched a 90-day, door-to-door survey of every household in the city for Covid-19 symptoms. Nearly 16,000 healthcare workers armed with personal protective equipment and trained to ask the right set of questions will visit close to a million buildings in the city to record Covid-19 symptoms and create a disease database, SP Velumani, the minister for Municipal Administration, Rural Development and Special Programme Implementation, said.

Those with symptoms would instantly be taken to the closest Covid-19 medical facility. Adhering to what is now referred to as the ‘Bhilwara model’, based on the way that the state authorities locked down Rajasthan’s Bhilwara, one of the first coronavirus clusters to emerge in the country in March, Chennai has already sealed off high-risk areas that reported multiple Covid19 cases. Nine areas of the city that accounted for nearly 20 cases have been declared containment zones. An area within a five-kilometre radius of such neighbourhoods are completely isolated, disinfected daily and citizens are simply not allowed to leave their homes. Health workers survey nearly 3000 houses in each of the nine hotspots every day.

Ramped up testing: The government’s testing and isolation efforts, until the Tablighi Jamaat incident, were focused largely on air-passengers and those with a history of overseas travel. Rather than stigmatise the attendees, the government started a helpline towards the end of March so that they could self-identify and seek testing. This has worked in favour of the state: more than 1431 attendees have been traced so far. However, since many are from rural areas, the state has directed its identification efforts there. After the go-ahead from the Indian Centre for Medical Research for using antibody tests which return quicker results, chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami announced on April 5 that the state had placed an order for 100,000 rapid test kits. State health ministry officials said that a bulk of it would be sent to smaller towns and rural areas.

Essentials supplied: The effectiveness of lockdown depends in large measure on the state’s ability to deliver essential goods and services to people in a manner that keeps them safe at home. The state’s well-oiled Public Distribution System (PDS), Amma Canteens and welfare schemes have helped no doubt, but the smooth supply of vegetables has been one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest successes in this crisis. The government has set aside Rs 3280 crore for measures such as a Rs 1000 cash support scheme and delivering free rice, lentils and cooking oil through PDS shops. In many parts of the state, local authorities deliver a three-kilo weekly supply kit of vegetables for a nominal Rs 100. To further ease the strain on the healthcare system, the CM has also announced a subsidy of 30% capital investment with a cap of Rs 20 crore for new manufacturers of invasive ventilators, masks, drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and vitamin C tablets. He also announced sops for farmers, including a waiver of cold storage user fee, loans up to Rs 10 lakh to farmer producer firms, as well as exempted traders from paying 1% market fee for procuring farm produce.

Farmer cooperatives: Four months ago, Tamil Nadu handed over a large part of the management of fruit and vegetable supply chain to farmer producer companies (FPC). FPCs are for-profit cooperatives that can be formed with 10 or more farmers as shareholders. Its activities can range from production and procurement to marketing and even export. Such cooperatives now run nearly 10 primary processing centers (PPC) in the big horticultural regions such as Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri. Since the FPC are farmer-owned companies, they find it easier to procure vegetables at a price that is fair to both farmers and consumers. There are cold storage facilities at all the PPCs. The farmer cooperatives are now playing a big role in door-delivering pre-packaged five-kilo vegetable boxes for Rs 250 in cities like Chennai and Coimbatore. Gagagdeep Sigh Bedi, Tamil Nadu’s agriculture secretary and agriculture production commissioner has been a big advocate of farm sector reforms in the state. “We invested nearly Rs 480 crore in this PPP scheme and it has come in handy in the time of a huge crisis. The FPCs now account for about 5-10% of Chennai’s daily vegetable supply. The horticulture department has started its own ecommerce door delivery platform a few days ago that makes 1000 deliveries a day in Chennai. We have 3700 mobile vegetable units currently and plan to add 500 each day,” Bedi told HT.

Social distancing measures: In order to ease overcrowding in markets, Tamil Nadu converted bus stations in towns and cities into vegetable markets. The state has some 120 farmers markets where farmers can sell their produce directly to consumers. To manage social distancing and avoid chaos and crowding, nearly 60 farmers markets were relocated to bus stands that are now empty because of the lockdown. “The concrete flooring of the bus stands makes it easier to disinfect; bus stands are usually centrally located; and the large open architecture of bus stands make it easier to install disinfectant tunnels and prevent physical contact between people,” Bedi said.

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