Manipur’s tackling of COVID-19 currently can best be compared to handing out mugs of water to douse indiscriminate raging fires breaking out in different places: inefficient, time consuming, alarmist, too little too less and a thankless job. The last part of ‘a thankless job’ is the sum total of how the Government and the state administration would like to counter any shortcomings spelled out for them.
The State got lucky with only two COVID positive cases in the first wave before strict national lockdown measures came into place leading to the ‘green zone’ tag but it failed abysmally to take lessons from elsewhere around the world that showed all too well that easing lockdown measures in the form of people moving back would bring in the risk of new infections. It failed to take any advantage of the ‘green zone’ period to prepare systems and measures for the largescale quarantine and testing of returnees to the state. Rather, the Government took to grandstanding: by proclaiming that the state was ‘COVID free’ (technically, a wrong thing to say), having the party in power’s State Vice President under the garb of a think tank official to write an ‘analytical’ piece in the Economic Times saying Manipur had ‘slayed the Chinese dragon’ and singing paeans to the country’s Prime Minister and the State Chief Minister. Well! The dragon is now in the backyard.
If only enough attention had given to strategic and efficient measures to tackle the risk of COVID infection amongst those returning back to the state, a lot of the current heartburn could have been avoided. The logistics of the quarantine centers could have been better managed uniformly across the state by equipping them with beddings, ensuring their sanitization and mechanisms for safe waste collection and disposal and putting in additional bathrooms and bio toilets. It is strange that the Government has not taken to setting up makeshift bathrooms from cheap materials like bamboo, which can easily be dismantled and then set on fire after they have been used by those who are ascertained COVID positive later. As for the toilets, wasn’t there a huge campaign earlier in the state for bio friendly toilets in the pre COVID, pre-MLA/Minister disqualification era?
And so we are where we are now: poorly managed quarantine centers straining at its seams to contain the vast numbers of state migrants, extended stays in the centers due to the backlog in testing and then some more wait involved till the time of getting results, provision of masks for inmates not looked into but mostly left as the responsibility of inmates, sending in different batches of inmates to the center and possibly, a growing number of positive cases – situations that are all interlinked. Last week on FPSJ Review of Arts and Politics, we had a testimonial of Meiraba Mangang, a returnee, a student from the state who was stranded in Chandigarh. His observations of the quarantine centre is only one of the many stories that highlight the inadequate measures being rolled out: no drinking water or food, no provision of bedding and sharing of bathrooms and toilets. Meiraba who had been taken to the flu clinic at JNIMS due to a sore throat complaint when he reached Imphal on May 16 was not sent for a COVID test. Rather, he and others at the quarantine center he was at were kept waiting for 9 days for swab samples to be taken and another 4 days for the results to come in. Fortunately for Meiraba, his results have come in negative and he is back home with his family at the time of writing. Meiraba took the onus of keeping others at the centre safe by staying in the corridor rather than the common rooms where physical distancing was not really maintained. But imagine that Meiraba had lived in a common room without any physical distancing for 9 days, without masks and without a test. If it did turn out that he was Covid positive in such a scenario, it increases the chances of infecting those around him in the time that he was an inmate.
With more state returnees heading back, it becomes more imperative to streamline how to quarantine them with the objective of isolating them from one another rather than mixing them up. Keeping inmates in a way that ensures adherence to physical distancing norms, providing them with masks and educating everyone to keep them on correctly will go long in breaking the chain of infection at the quarantine centres. This, in addition to procuring more testing machines will help keep things from spiraling further. Collecting nasopharyngal swabs from returnees and then delaying actual testing is a bit risky unless standards for their storage is not strictly adhered to.
With more people testing positive for COVID 19, there will likely be a situation where the beds allocated for treatment will run short. There will also be a possibility of trained medical staff at RIMS and JNIMS running short: it would be a good idea to rope in the nurses who have come back from other states due to the blatant discrimination against them. Of course, roping them in would mean paying them commensurate to the task at hand. Trained doctors can be requested from Kerala as well: after all, Maharashtra is doing the same but if this is not much of a politically palatable move, the other option is to bring in doctors from the private sector. As for beds for COVID patients running short, one way out is to take over hotels that are not located in residential areas (can think of the Hotel Imphal by Classic and Classic Grande as a start) and convert them into treatment zones. If the hospitality sector has been supportive of their facilities being used as paid quarantine centers, the same will hold for use as treatment centers.
But to keep the State Government as the only accountable stakeholder in the fight against COVID would be wrong. The people on the streets, those lining up before shops without any care, those spitting in public places and especially those who are flouting every rule in the book on maintaining physical distancing and using face masks at all times are not only guilty but at risk, to themselves and others, starting with their own families. Some hope lies with community leaders in the state whose responses now are very encouraging: some have been very practical and accommodating with many giving contributions to the Quarantine Management Committees while some have ensured that quarantine norms are also in place for people returning by flights. The COVID situation is not something to be taken lightly but going by social media updates from back home, it does look like a very relaxed attitude, which will not help anyone.