COVID-19 in Mumbai: Is sealing buildings called for in the present wave?

In the third wave of COVID-19 in Mumbai, is the BMC rule of sealing buildings warranted, given the nature of the Omicron variant?

In the first two waves of COVID-19 in Mumbai, the standard protocol to prevent the spread of the virus was stringent. Strict night curfews were implemented, public spaces were closed and buildings were sealed if five or more positive cases were found. This helped control the spread of what was deemed to be a more lethal variant of Coronavirus, Delta. But, citizens raised an objection to the rule of sealing buildings, claiming that it was impractical, inconvenient and didn’t do much to contain the infection.

With the onset of the Omicron variant, the city witnessed a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases in early January. But from the initial surge, with over 6000 cases everyday, numbers have declined. Instances of hospitalisations and deaths are fewer than in the second wave, and those who test positive are reporting mild symptoms. The new conditions of the virus are enabling eased regulations, but more careless behaviour from citizens. 

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)’s revised COVID-19 protocol claims that a whole building/wing of a housing complex shall be sealed if more than 20% of the flats are affected with COVID-19. Is this practical anymore?

What does sealing buildings imply?

The BMC has often faced flak for sealing entire buildings instead of only restricting movement for affected flats. As per new regulations, if the virus has affected more than 20% of the flats in a building, the entire building will be sealed, prohibiting entry or exit of any individual, whether from the society or from outside. 

However, some exemptions are made for older residents who need full time help. “Essentials like groceries, food deliveries and medicines can be delivered to the building, and then carried upstairs by a watchman to the affected flats. Those who haven’t tested positive can come downstairs to collect their deliveries,” said Krishna Shetty, Chairman of Riviera Cooperative Housing Society in Lokhandwala township, Kandivali.

House-help, drivers and other workers will not be allowed in the building/wing and police will be deployed at the gates. All residents of such buildings will be tested for COVID-19 in phases. 

All pathology labs and diagnostic centres are required to report all COVID-positive test results to the respective BMC ward on a daily basis. The BMC officials have a point of contact in each housing society, and are informed of all positive cases. The BMC even makes routine calls to the affected persons to get updates on their health. This practice has continued since the first wave, except now it is harder to track patients of COVID-19 in Mumbai since the rise of home-testing.

Initial reactions

“In the last wave, those working in the service industry weren’t able to go to work for 14 days. Folks from the building called me complaining about the situation, and how their salaries were being cut for not attending work” said Krishna.

Although sealing buildings may not be the most convenient option, it certainly is reassuring for high-risk individuals. “All the people we lost in the first and second wave made us more aware of the consequences, so this level of precaution is necessary to follow,” said Leena Soaz, a Kandivali resident.

However, not everyone agrees. “People are afraid to report cases – especially now with home-testing kits facilitating this –  due to fear of BMC personnel showing up at their doorstep, disrupting the peace of the family and the building,” he added. This increasing fear among citizens is counteractive to the effective eradication of the virus.

For 68-year-old Ratnakar Deshpande, a resident of Phoenix society in Goregaon, sealed buildings caused more problems. Him and his wife relied on house-help and cooks to get by, and not letting them into the building caused them to subscribe to a dabba service that they weren’t happy with. “In the third wave however, we have not had to seal the building yet, as the regulations have been eased.” he said.

Read more: Possible alternatives for Mumbai slums in a post-COVID-19 world

What is different about the third wave of COVID-19 in Mumbai?

Although the new Omicron variant is said to be more transmissible, WHO’s initial report claimed that it didn’t cause severe disease, especially now that the majority of the population is vaccinated. 

Restrictions are now relaxed in building associations, as well as BMC rules. “In this wave, we have not carried out any extreme measures like prohibiting domestic help in all buildings, as we did last year. The home quarantine period being cut down to only 7 days has also helped this situation. As it is less likely that 20% of the occupied flats all test positive at the same time,” said Krishna Shetty.

But the purported mildness of the variant has also created a sense of complacency among most. Mask wearing has gone down, and social gatherings continue to happen despite restrictions. “If people continue to behave like this – even though the variant isn’t lethal – more cases would mean more hospitalisations. And if more load is put on our medical infrastructure, more deaths are bound to occur,” said Dr. Sachin Pattiwar, a resident Doctor at KEM Hospital.

Mural of a healthcare worker wearing a superman mask.
Healthcare workers are at the mercy of the virus if citizens continue to ignore COVID protocol | Photo: Gopal MS

What are societies and welfare associations doing?

Sapphire Housing society in the Lokhandwala township houses over 500 flats, across four buildings. “The last wave of COVID-19 in Mumbai was definitely harder to deal with, as the cases were more severe and building sealing rules were stricter. Last year’s rule said that whenever 5 or more people tested positive in a building, it would be sealed. But in buildings of this size, it was almost inevitable to have 5 positive cases,” said Gauri Dhandarphale, an Advanced Locality Management (ALM) member and committee member of the housing society.

“This time however, it is much easier to manage, since restrictions are eased. Our experience in navigating these situations through trial and error in the last two waves has also helped us decide on clear policies to curb the spread of the virus. In this wave so far, we haven’t had to seal any building,” she added.

Through timely committee meetings, Sapphire CHS has set policies for Covid procedures in households. Flats with COVID-19 patients are strictly monitored, to restrict entry and exit. All delivery packages are left at the gate and safely delivered to the flat by building personnel. Affected households are responsible for getting their domestic help tested. For older folks, facilities are provided where they can hire help to live in for the duration of the quarantine, and routine visits by nurses are also allowed, if all precautions are taken.

According to Manali Jain, member of Carmichael road Citizens Association, precaution is better than cure, so societies are taking the new rule very seriously. “We have a lot of old people in our building, and it is important to think of those who are more vulnerable to catching severe disease,” she said. “The building will be sealed as and when necessary, but we will do our best to ensure no inconveniences occur to the residents.”

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