Coronavirus impact: Maharashtra is facing the worst public health crisis

By: Krishna Kumar – [email protected]

Mumbai: The Maharashtra government, facing one of its worst ever public health crisis in recent history in the form of the Covid-19 outbreak, is considering drastic measures like complete stoppage of local suburban train and buses services in key cities like Mumbai. The government is also planning to ask 50% of its employees to work from home in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus that has so far affected 41 state residents and caused the death of an elderly resident in Mumbai. Maharashtra, India’s most industrialised and urbanised state, has been affected the most by the Coronavirus outbreak.

A complete shutdown of BEST bus services and the suburban train services would bring India’s maximum city and its financial capital to a grinding halt. Life would be thrown out of gear with millions unable to get to work dealing a body blow to the country’s economy and to India’s bustling corporate sector. State health department officials who have been pushing for a shutdown told ET that the stoppage is necessary to curb the spread of the virus and would last till the end of the month. If the state health ministry had its way, only essential services and grocery, medical shops would remain open in Mumbai.

The Maharashtra Cabinet did not take a decision in its Tuesday Cabinet meeting but Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray warned that stoppage of train services would become inevitable if people don’t cooperate with the authorities. He said the government was not willing to take such a drastic move immediately. “We are not shutting down buses and trains as of now.. We do not want to curtail them as they are essential services. However, people have to cooperate by not venturing out unnecessarily. If they don’t, then there is a possibility that we might have to consider such a move,” he added.

Maximum Halt for Maximum City

Government officials said they would act if the number of people infected by Covid-19 rises sharply. According to government officials, the state will be taking an ‘instant and immediate review of shutting down the city’ if there is a sudden increase in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, the state Election Commission postponed elections to local gram panchayats and and other local body polls in Maharashtra. In Pune, the state’s second-biggest city which has seen the maximum number of cases at 17, restaurant and hotel owners said that they would shut down operations on their own.

The move to shut down trains and buses in Mumbai came from the state health minister Rajesh Tope. On Tuesday, Tope said he would, ‘surely and forcefully argue’ on restrictions on buses and trains in the city as ‘the crowd in them was too difficult to manage and could lead to a dramatic increase in the spread of the virus’.

“All it needs is one Corona positive case to travel in a bus or train. Considering the crowds in these two transport systems, our public as well private hospitals would soon be overwhelmed by the amount of new cases,” a state health department official said.

In the Cabinet meeting, Tope argued for a shutdown till the end of the month saying Mumbai was at high risk. But some other Cabinet ministers argued that a shutdown even for a couple of days would lead to an economic and social crisis of enormous magnitude. Maharashtra Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta was also not in favour of a move to shut down public transport in Mumbai.

A shutdown will also inconvenience the BMC, police and Fire brigade personnel from reaching their offices causing further problems.

Maharashtra health department officials told ET that the economic and social argument does not make ‘sense’. “If the city’s transport leads to the virus spreading then you may have to forcibly shut them down. It’s better to have a controlled shutdown.”said the official to ET.

Government and political sources said Tope also wanted Mantralaya, the Maharashtra secretariat in Mumbai, to be shut for seven days, but the Cabinet kept the move in abeyance.

The chief minister said the state government is studying the issue of using just 50% of government employees to work from home. “We are studying our staff strength; we are looking at the minimum staff with which we could work with (run the administration). Our intention is to bring down the load on public transport.”said Thackeray.

The chief minister also had a meeting earlier in the day with railway officials who vetoed the idea of shutting down train services. But later in the day, Central Railways announced that it was cancelling 23 outstation trains leaving Mumbai to various parts of the country.

The Cabinet meanwhile decided to shut down bird shops in Mumbai’s crawford market and other places in Mumbai.

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