Mumbai: Harsh measures taken, as coronavirus spreads to the slums

Mumbai's health officials are working on a war footing to ensure containment of the virus by creating containment zones and sanitising entire localities besides extensive screening. But they face a humongous task.

The city that never sleeps has a new, deadly reason to remain awake at nights, as its worst fears about the coronavirus outbreak has come true. Mumbai has reported that the virus has spread to its slums, making it difficult, if not impossible, to break the chain by tracking and isolating the source and its primary contacts.

Till March 30th, Mumbai had registered 8 deaths and 126 positive cases, according to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Positive cases have now been reported from slums in different localities like Worli Koliwada, Ghatkopar, Kalina and Prabhadevi. In Worli Koliwada and nearby Janata Colony, detection of seven positive cases have prompted the police to seal the area, a first of sorts. Other areas like Bimbisar Nagar in Goregaon and in Dahisar, too were sealed as the government felt that current measures weren’t effective enough.

Latest media reports indicate that as cluster cases have now begun to appear from these slums, the BMC and police have created five containment zones to cordon off these areas and sanitise the entire set of clusters. The biggest of the containment zones is Worli Koliwada, where 11 residents have tested positive so far and where the movement of 35,000 residents have now been restricted.

The others are a chawl in Prabhadevi with 12 cases where the BMC carried out an extensive sanitising operation while doctors checked every resident in this and neighbouring chawls, Jambhlipada in Kalina and Bimbisar Nagar in Goregaon where three positive cases have been detected in each cluster and Lokhandwala in Kandivali and Neelkanth Regent in Ghatkopar which have so far reported two cases each. Extensive door to door screening is being conducted at all five containment zones. Authorities say exit and entry points in these zones have been sealed and essential supplies are being provided.

The first cases detected, which led to the subsequent extensive preventive measures, were a 68-year-old-Ghatkopar maid who had contracted the virus from her foreign returned employer, (also infecting another 25-year-old neighbour), a 37-year-old Kalina resident who had been working as a waiter in Italy. The third positive case was a 65-year-old lady from Prabhadevi slum who ran a food mess for a business complex around her area. Two other general practitioners, who serviced these localities, have also tested positive. All are in isolation and treatment.

Health department officials from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) are working on a war footing to track and quarantine the primary contacts of the detected patients and to screen and sanitise entire localities within the containment zones. But they face a humongous task. “The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is doing an amazing job in tracking and quarantining all those infected. Hats off to them for pulling it off in such difficult circumstances,” says Dr Sayeeda Khan, a practicing doctor and a corporator from Kurla, known for its congested slums.

Where social distancing is not possible

Practising the safe one-metre distance between family members is virtually impossible for more than half of Mumbai, who stay in informal housing or slums.

People stay in less than 10×10 ft houses and when all family members are in it together, it gets difficult, especially when the cooking is on. “The police may lathi charge people on the streets, asking them to go back to their homes, but it’s just not practical or possible for all family members to sit in together for 21 days in such living conditions. The streets are better ventilated than their homes,” says Renita D’Souza, a resident of Hanuman Nagar slums in Kandivli (E). In her tiny house, Renita’s teeenage son is forced to watch TV to pass his time.

Even in regular times, slums, with their dingy living spaces packed densely, are a huge health challenge. As per the Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, 1956, slums are defined as areas where buildings are unfit for human habitation because of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangement and design of such buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light or sanitation facilities, or any combination of these factors. Such areas are deemed detrimental to safety, health and morals. This was the definition followed in the 2011 census, which found that 49.38 per cent of Mumbai, or 4,62,0654 Mumbai citizens lived in slums.

“A few days back, policemen visited our locality, and got people to put Modi’s speech on loudspeakers about precautions to be followed,” says Madi Dravid, a resident of Anna Nagar slums near Kandivali station. Dravid, 54, works as a security guard in a 17-storied housing complex nearby and continues to put in his 12-hour shifts. The housing complex where he is working has given him masks and sanitisers and asked him to wash his hands every half an hour.

Prices shoot up

The area where Dravid stays has already started witnessing shortages and price hikes of essentials food items due to panic buying and hoarding immediately after the Prime Minister’s March 22 address. “Suddenly people are buying in huge quantities, way beyond their normal purchases, leading to shortfall,” said Shirley Nadar, who runs the Justin Provision Stores at Anna Nagar in the suburb of Kandivli. “Prices of basic commodities like sugar has risen from Rs 40/kg to Rs 50/kg. The ban on transport services has only added to the problem. Wholesalers are taking advantage of the situation by bringing out old stocks at a higher price”. The supply situation had become so bad that Shirley says she is short of food grains for her own family.

Mohan Gurnani, Chairman of Chamber of Associations of Maharashtra Industry and Trade (CAMIT), blamed the disruptions in the supply chains and panic. “Due to panic, loaders at the five major wholesale markets, namely grains, onions/potatoes, fruits, vegetables and spices, fled to their villages. Goods laden trucks were left stranded at the markets during March 21st-25th. Despite surplus stocks this year, panic buying is creating shortfall.”

Gurnani however said that things are slowly improving with the loaders being persuaded to return and the markets re-opening gradually from March 26th, following government intervention. A meeting was held between officials, the police and traders after some loaders expressed fears of being beaten by police and were assured of being given identity cards identifying them as essential services workers.

The worst affected by all this, as usual are the poor. “Why are only the poor punished and having to bear the additional costs,” asks Renita D’Souza. “Its not as if we created this situation, but we face the brunt of it”. Renita’s husband who used to work as a temporary loader with a tractor major is now unemployed as there are no trucks bringing in goods. Her own efforts to earn a little extra by doing odd jobs from home is not working out either.

Ironically, as the nationwide lockdown enters its ninth day, the truth is that while it is the well off who brought this pandemic from abroad to India, they are protecting themselves inside their gated communities by shutting out the poor.

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