The Delhi government wants to reduce the number of people at weddings to 50 and has asked the Union government for powers to lock down markets if they turn into hot spots, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Tuesday — both much-needed curbs as the Capital struggles to tame a rising wave of Covid-19 infections that has pushed hospitals to the brink.
Both the decisions, which were welcomed by experts, have been sent to the lieutenant governor (LG) Anil Baijal for approval.
In the week ending November 14, Delhi recorded previously unseen levels of new cases, and daily fatalities have hovered close to 100 a day. New deaths usually reflect infections that took place three-four weeks ago. New cases declined over the weekend, but this is likely to be misleading since the weekend and two festivals (Diwali and Bhai Dooj) led to fewer tests.
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“A few weeks back, when the Covid-19 situation improved in Delhi, the government in keeping with central guidelines issued an order allowing 200 people to attend weddings, up from the limit of 50 before. Today we have decided that the order should be rescinded and the limit of 50 reinstated,” Kejriwal said at a press briefing over video.
“Secondly, we saw in the run-up to Diwali that people were not wearing masks or following social distancing at many markets, which led to a spurt in infections. We have now sent a proposal to the Union government to allow us to assess if people are not following appropriate behaviour at a market and shut it down if we feel it could turn into a hot spot,” he added.
The Union home ministry, which is the main agency coordinating measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has ordered regional governments across the country to seek its permission before announcing any lockdowns.
By Tuesday evening, the office of the LG received both files, said a senior official who did not wish to be identified. While the LG is likely to take a call on the wedding-related proposal on his own, he shall be forwarding the market-related proposal to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Union home ministry, the official said.
Kejriwal added that he hopes that such measures will not be required since the festival rush is now over at marketplaces. “All governments and agencies are making double efforts to contain the coronavirus infections. But we will not be able to achieve this unless everyone does their part,” the chief minister said in what he described as “an appeal with folded hands”.
The CM’s stance appeared to be at odds with remarks on Monday by Delhi health minister Satyender Jain, who said the Capital’s third wave of infections has peaked and that there will be no new lockdowns. Hours after Kejriwal’s Tuesday briefing, deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia told HT: “We want to clarify that this is not a lockdown. The concept of lockdown has not helped in the fight against Covid-19 in a long run. This is a generic permission we have sought from the central government for emergency situations.”
Alarm at the situation has particularly grown since Sunday, when a high-level review of the situation involving the topmost state and central authorities – including Kejriwal and home minister Amit Shah – found that the situation in Delhi was unlike anything seen across the worst-hit regions in the country. At its peak, according to a presentation by Niti Aayog’s VK Paul, Delhi added more infections per million than Maharashtra or Kerala – the two other states hit hard by the pandemic.
Daily hospitalisation data collated by the government showed that the number of people admitted crossed the 9,000-mark for the first time and that from among 3,500-odd ICU and ventilator beds earmarked for Covid-19 patients, only a little over 400 are vacant.
Between November 1 and 16, over 101,000 Covid-19 infections were added to Delhi’s tally. In this period, the city recorded most infections (8,593 on November 11) and deaths (104 on November 12) for a single day.
Health experts have repeatedly said the reinstating of some curbs may be inevitable to tackle this situation.
“The Covid-19 situation in Delhi is in bad shape now. Such restrictions are much needed. A lot of transmission of the virus is likely to have happened during the festive season and the effects will be visible in the weeks ahead. The government should scale up testing, surveillance and containment efforts as well,” said Dr Lalit Kant, former head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
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Since Monday, officials of the Union and Delhi government have been preparing to marshal more resources. “The current 3,500 ICU beds will be increased to 6,000 in the next few days with the help of Delhi government, army and central government. The army-run hospital in Dhaula Kuan will add 537 ICU beds, the central government hospitals 45, and 2,680 beds will be added by the Delhi government, mostly through the order reserving 80% ICU beds in 33 big private hospitals,” Paul said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan, who was also at the briefing, said: “It has been decided that the number of tests will be doubled in Delhi between 1 lakh and 1.2 lakh. And, a strategy for the same has been devised. However, we need to ensure that the ratio between rapid antigen tests and the RT PCR is right; it should not become lopsided in the favour of rapid antigen tests”.
Two other major steps in the works are a redrawing of the containment strategy and citywide door-to-door canvassing in which officials will urge anyone with symptoms to get tested. According to officials, the specifics of both these measures are likely to be announced in the coming days.
Wedding hall industry representatives said they were worried about the economic fallout of the new curbs.
“The Delhi government’s proposal to restrict the number will ruin us. It is only after the Delhi government increased the number of guests at weddings, we started taking bookings for up to 200 guests. The cards have been distributed and we have called back our workforce from their villages, as we finally had work. This decision will adversely impact the livelihood of 1 million families associated with the wedding business,” said Sandeep Madan, vice president of Community Welfare Banquet Association.
Brijesh Goyal, president of chamber of trade and industry, said: “Traders are anxious in Delhi after Tuesday’s announcement. We will do a video conference on Wednesday with more than 200 market associations in which we will be recording the views and opinions of the traders, which will be sent to the chief minister’s office, and we shall also be discussing measures related to social distancing, Covid-19 appropriate behaviour and precautions that can be taken to avoid temporary shutting down of any market.”
But experts said the measures were required. “The decision on markets looks like a focused restriction measure which is temporary in nature and should not ideally be compared with the lockdown that we have witnessed earlier. There can be an economic impact for a short period, wherever the restrictions are imposed, if approved, but Delhi is also witnessing a health emergency and the Covid-19 numbers are worrisome,” said Dr Jacob John, former head of clinical virology department at Christian Medical College, Vellore.