The normally bustling Koyambedu market in Chennai, touted to be one of Asia’s largest wholesale hubs for perishable goods, has come to a complete standstill. The never-ending rows of shops are empty, and an eerie silence has descended upon the sprawling area of 65 acres. The iron gates to the market are closed to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus , but it is too little, too late. Keeping the market open till May 5 during a raging pandemic has proved costly for the Tamil Nadu government.
Instead of maintaining physical distancing, people thronged the market during the nationwide lockdown without wearing masks. As a result, the huge market complex is now the State’s biggest COVID-19 cluster . With cases from the cluster spread over half of Tamil Nadu, Koyambedu has changed the State’s COVID-19 trajectory. Other States too have begun to report COVID-19-positive people with a known presence at Koyambedu, or who had contact with those in the market.
Since the imposition of the nationwide lockdown, the Koyambedu wholesale complex comprising the vegetable, fruits, flowers and foodgrains market saw sudden surges in the number of visitors every time there was panic about an impending shortage of essential goods. The complex attracts about 1-2 lakh visitors on normal days. Though the number dropped by less than half during the lockdown, there was a steady flow of consumers, In addition, about 10,000 labourers involved in loading and unloading goods flocked to the market.
Rush during lockdown
T. Venkatesh (name changed), a 57-year-old merchant at Koyambedu, was among the hundreds of traders present at the market during the lockdown. “It is impossible not to mingle with people when you’re at the market. I also attended meetings of traders’ bodies until April-end. There was greater rush during a certain period of the lockdown,” he said. A few days later, Venkatesh experienced a bout of fever and cold. “I thought it was normal sickness, but my family thought it would be better if I got tested for COVID-19. Little did I expect that I would test positive for the disease. After the result came on May 2, I was admitted to a private hospital for seven days,” he said. A diabetic, Venkatesh is relieved that he recovered quickly and his family members tested negative for COVID-19.
Like him, many other traders described business during the lockdown period as abnormal. P. Sukumar settled for business on April 25 at the market after unloading produce from the vehicles. Crowds, he said, are not new to him. But what unfolded on that day, before the four-day complete lockdown in Chennai , is etched in his mind. “Normally, retail vendors from distant areas like Arakkonam, Tiruvallur and Gummidipoondi begin to arrive first between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. to purchase vegetables and other goods. But on that day, people from nearby areas too started coming in early,” he said. Crowds soon spilled over to the roads leading to the market. Generally, about 2,000 vehicles arrive to fetch goods from the market around 2 a.m., but on that day, it seemed like the number of vehicles had doubled, Sukumar said. Inside the market, hundreds of people without masks jostled for space to buy vegetables in bulk. Vendors estimated that the number of visitors was three or four times higher than on normal days.
For residents in the neighbourhood, the Koyambedu market is a popular choice. This is where they can purchase most of the essential goods under one roof at a nominal rate. Traders were not prepared for such an increase in the number of visitors. It is nearly impossible to control such a huge gathering in a market that is the centre of a large supply chain, they said.
Government agencies, including the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, Greater Chennai Corporation and the Chennai police, formulated guidelines to decongest the market: they imposed restrictions on vehicle movement and visiting hours; launched mobile vegetable shops to issue passes to visitors; disallowed residents from entering the market; and roped in food aggregators to deliver vegetables and fruits. But none of these measures stopped the crowds from swelling.
Playing the blame game
Soon after the market was closed, and with the number of COVID-19 cases increasing in Tamil Nadu, the blame game for the chaos has started. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami has blamed the vendors for not cooperating with the government. He said they refused to move to alternate sites citing business losses, despite several rounds of talks. The Opposition parties have blamed the State government for allowing the creation of this cluster.
D. Rajasekaran, president of the Federation of Koyambedu Wholesale Vegetables Merchants Association, said: “Koyambedu is a large hub of perishable goods where about 90 different items are available. There are several options available now to people, but the market complex’s easy access and affordable rates have always been a big draw. Selling vegetables became an alternative business for several people who were rendered jobless during the lockdown. They also started visiting the market during the early hours despite restrictions by the police.”
Members of traders’ associations said they cooperated with the authorities and spread awareness about COVID-19. They also distributed about 5,000 masks daily to labourers and retail vendors, they said.
Some people said lack of awareness among the labourers on COVID-19 could have caused the rapid spread of the virus. About 10,000 labourers, mainly from other districts such as Ariyalur, Cuddalore and Perambalur, were engaged for loading and unloading the produce. Many of them left the city to their native places in vegetable trucks.
Members of the traders’ associations said they had been suggesting since April that the market be closed for a few days or operate on alternate days. They recalled that they withdrew the decision of closing the market on March 27 and 28 following the government’s instructions. “It is disheartening to see Koyambedu vendors being solely blamed for the spread of COVID-19. We had kept the shops open to prevent shortage of essential goods and price rise. We are prepared to listen to the government’s decisions in the future,” said Rajasekaran.
The emergence of a cluster
By May 15, Tamil Nadu recorded 10,108 COVID-19 cases, a figure inflated by cases from the Koyambedu market cluster. The number of cases began to increase rapidly in the last week of April when vendors in Chennai started to test positive for COVID-19. Soon, the market turned into a hotspot for the virus.
By May 4, when the State’s Health Department officially acknowledged the cluster in its daily bulletin, the cluster had started to grow in large proportions. It spread silently but quickly to other districts of the State that were less affected by the virus. The majority of the northern districts — Chengalpattu, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Cuddalore, Villupuram and Tiruvannamalai — took a hit. While western districts were spared, the central region — Ariyalur and Perambalur — that was less affected until then bore the brunt too, along with Chennai.
This was nothing like the State’s first cluster. Those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi account for a little over 1,300 cases. Officials said the Koyambedu cluster could account for about 3,000 cases. The cluster’s present case count is approximately 2,500-2,600.
Soon after the retail market was closed, market labourers, who until then had stayed and slept on platforms and in load vehicles, started to leave the city for their hometowns. J. Radhakrishnan, special nodal officer for COVID-19, Greater Chennai Corporation, said the government immediately began to identify and list those who went to the market. “With the cooperation of the market association, we identified 6,900 people who had gone to various districts from Koyambedu, and another 1,300 in Chennai. We quarantined all of them, checked them for symptoms, and tested them,” he said.
Noting that contact tracing was very strong, T.S. Selvavinayagam, director of public health and preventive medicine, said they had tracked most of the people who had returned from Koyambedu. Most of them had gone to Ariyalur, Cuddalore and Villupuram. With targeted testing on, officials began to test the samples of all those linked to the Koyambedu market in Chennai and other districts.
However, all this dealt a heavy blow to the ongoing containment measures, and posed many challenges too. “We immediately knew that the Tablighi Jamaat cluster had a new replacement. The Koyambedu market was conducive for disease transmission,” an official said. “The labourers, who until then had made the market their home, started to leave the city in groups and in whichever vehicle they managed to get. What we wanted to do is trace them and their contacts as early and as fast as possible. The aim was to track all of them but the challenge was that the majority were asymptomatic. However, the response from the people was encouraging. They self-reported and gave details on how many days they had worked in the market,” he said.
All districts that had business relations with Koyambedu were affected, said K.S. Kandasamy, Collector of Tiruvannamalai, a district that is 185-190 kilometres away from Koyambedu. “Earlier, 300-500 people used to arrive in Tiruvannamalai from Chennai. At the time we had about seven positive cases a day. Now, on an average, we receive 50 people and one-third of them test positive for the infection. Most of them are natives of Tiruvannamalai but reside in the city for work. They are from areas such as Pulianthope, Pallavaram and Tambaram and are somehow linked to the Koyambedu market. They worked in tea stalls near the market, or sold produce in pushcarts. With Chennai turning into a hotspot, many are returning to their hometowns,” he said.
Along with Chennai, the neighbouring districts of Tiruvallur and Chengalpattu continue to report a significant number of cases linked to Koyambedu. Shopkeepers and vendors travelled in vehicles from these districts to Koyambedu and purchased vegetables. They got infected and so did their contacts.
In one area, a vendor who travelled in a share auto to purchase vegetables from Koyambedu spread the infection to 25-30 others. Such was the magnitude of the cluster, officials said.
Maintain distancing, wear masks
“The point is you have to imagine what can go wrong,” said T. Jacob John, virologist and retired professor of virology, Christian Medical College, Vellore. “Only imagination can tell you what will happen if you keep the Koyambedu market open with the lockdown hanging over your head till May 17. People will tend to hoard. This should have been imagined ahead of time. This lack of imagination is helping the virus,” he said. He added that if the government wanted the market to function, it should have organised it in a better way and insisted that everyone wear masks. “In other words, if everyone wears masks, that is equal to imposing a lockdown or is even better than a lockdown. The lockdown is to prevent the asymptomatic infected from infecting others. The minimum distance between two persons should be six feet. If you expect people to assemble in spite of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, then insist they wear a mask. Then it would be less of a problem. But they did not imagine that people would crowd like this. The damage is done, and there is hardly anything that they can do except contact tracing and quarantining,” he said. “If you want to control the speed of infection, diagnose and test mild and moderate cases. If this is done regularly by RT-PCR, we will find more people than through contact tracing.”
The lockdown, Professor John said, has not worked very well because it has not been taken seriously by a lot of people. “It has been extremely leaky. It is proven by the fact that the number of cases is going up by leaps and bounds despite the lockdown. People are not taking the lockdown seriously, nor are they wearing masks,” he said.
Jayaprakash Muliyil, epidemiologist and former principal of Christian Medical College, Vellore, said one of the most important risk factors for the spread of COVID-19 is the average distance between two human beings. “This is the most important principle. The moment you have crowding, this principle is violated. Whatever you do, you should not allow crowding to happen,” he said. “When we have a complete lockdown in the middle of a lockdown, people will buy a lot. So decisions have to be carefully made. You can warn people in advance.”
What can crowding do? “Reducing the duration of shopping for vegetables is not a good idea as people tend to rush to buy vegetables. Do everything to prevent crowding,” Dr. Muliyil said. “With every decision you make, ask the question, can you increase or decrease crowding? The question is not how long a person spends inside the house. The question is, how often does a person have to get into a crowd?” For instance, a person can spend 23 and a half hours inside the house and then stand in a crowd for half an hour and get infected. “The idea to keep people at home is to avoid crowding. We have succeeded in keeping people at home but all of them come together in shops. Spacing individuals and allowing enough time for them to shop is important. Crowds gather because we do not give enough time to people. This was the problem,” Dr. Muliyil said.
“The word cluster came into the COVID-19 story when it was initially said that this virus is imported, and there were a few people around that imported case. That is a containable cluster. The meaning of the word cluster is lost when community transmission starts. That means there are clusters all over the place. Earlier clusters were named so that we can contain the area but we cannot contain 1,000 clusters. This virus is highly transmissible. And it does so without any clinical manifestation,” he said.
Managing a market
Management of the Koyambedu market has been a big challenge during the pandemic, said officials of the Market Management Committee and Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. It is a complex area as various segments are situated in the same place. Shops are closely located. When it was set up in 1996, no one would have designed the market keeping in mind physical distancing or a pandemic, said an official. “We had been talking to the representatives of traders associations about shifting the market for many days. But people continued to visit the market despite the police prohibiting them,” the official added.
Since May 10, wholesale merchants are trading at the Thirumazhisai market where space has been allotted for about 200 shops. Individual consumers are not allowed. Business hours are restricted from early morning till 8.30 a.m.
D. Karthikeyan, Member Secretary, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, said creating a temporary market in a vacant space in a short time was a challenge. “We are taking a cautious approach so that people don’t congregate. Entry to the market has been restricted and screening of vehicles is being done,” he said.
The growing cluster points to the need for better planning. A. Srivathsan, Professor, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, said unlike shopping malls, there were compulsions to have the Koyambedu market opened to prevent shortage of essential commodities. However, the decision to shift the market to alternate spaces like Madhavaram and build temporary markets like in Thirumazhisai could have been thought of earlier, he said. “Sometimes, there is a tendency to overlook some issues in an emergency response. There is nothing wrong in admitting an oversight,” he said.
Even without a pandemic, having a market in one large unit is a problem in a rapidly expanding city. “Given the population distribution, a polycentric model is needed in the way we distribute urban amenities. Sanitary inspections were important in the early 20th century. In places like Doveton, market licences were cancelled if there was poor sanitation,” he said. “We must come up with more locations for markets, and design and maintain them well post-pandemic. A well-designed market goes a long way in the maintenance of hygiene, irrespective of its size. It needs to be designed keeping in mind not just crowd movement and the convenience of people but also health and sanitation.”
Also read | 1,589 cases linked to Koyambedu till May 8
Can the concept of goods distribution be sustained in the post-COVID-19 scenario? Urban Design Collective, a Chennai-based collaborative platform of architects, urban designers and planners, has studied how Chennai’s Koyambedu and Tirunelveli have coped with the pandemic. Vidhya Mohankumar, architect, urban designer and founder of Urban Design Collective, said, “Our team found that some new ways were adopted to get fresh produce. In Tirunelveli, residents grouped to buy produce on a rotational basis to reduce the number of individual trips to the market.”
The team has come up with a model that can be followed post-COVID-19 for distribution in Tirunelveli. Cooperatives for neighbourhood shops and small food enterprises can be formed with a few business owners, they said. One of them can procure goods at the market for the cooperative and reduce crowding at the market.
However, in a major city like Chennai, intermediate delivery service providers would also be appropriate. Residents and vendors can sign up with aggregators who can pick up and deliver supplies. “We must think of multiple ways to become a food-smart city. We can have rooftop gardens in many buildings, including commercial ones. The State government can form ‘community thottams (gardens)’ at unused land parcels or open space reservation lands at the ward level to grow organic food,” said Mohankumar.
Clearly, more than one solution has to be employed with foresight and imagination, so that crises of this scale are avoided in future, even if the Koyambedu market were to get back to regular functioning.