Coronavirus | In Madhya Pradesh, power play during a pandemic

While the Congress government was fighting to retain its hold and the BJP was trying to wrest power, several medical professionals, police officials and others contracted COVID-19 in Madhya Pradesh. Sidharth Yadav reports on a State which did not appoint a Cabinet for nearly a month even as a pandemic raged on

Updated - April 25, 2020 11:03 am IST

Published - April 25, 2020 12:15 am IST

Shivraj Singh Chouhan waves at BJP supporters at the party office in Bhopal on March 20, 2020 after Kamal Nath resigned as the Chief Minister around noon that day.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan waves at BJP supporters at the party office in Bhopal on March 20, 2020 after Kamal Nath resigned as the Chief Minister around noon that day.

In Madhya Pradesh, March 20, 2020 will be remembered for two things. It was the day when Kamal Nath bowed out as Chief Minister , bringing to a close a month-long power tussle in the State. It was also the day when four people tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Jabalpur.

Around noon, a political spectacle, long coming, played out at Nath’s residence in Bhopal, atop the Shyamala hills, overlooking the Upper Lake. Among the hundreds of journalists who had assembled there for a press meeting was a 62-year-old man, unknowingly carrying the virus . On the dais, in the open-air hall, stood a sullen set of Ministers. The government had been rocked by desertions from within the ranks. At the centre, a chair and table were set, from where Nath would later announce his resignation.

“Please come forward, and closer,” Narendra Saluja, media coordinator for the Chief Minister, gestured to journalists. Chairs were pulled with a screech, and arms and knees rubbed against each other as journalists, perspiring in the heat, huddled together to catch sight of the Congressmen on the dais.

“I had no idea I was carrying it,” the journalist, who remained asymptomatic through the 10 days of his treatment, said after his recovery . His daughter, 26, a postgraduate student in London, tested positive on March 22, days after her return. Hers was the first case in Bhopal.

Despite being faced with an unprecedented health crisis from March, by when cautious States had already closed down public places, prohibited gatherings, and ramped up health infrastructure and marshalled doctors, Madhya Pradesh was embroiled in political wrangling. The virus was knocking furiously at its gates. By April 12, SARS-CoV-2 had gripped Indore , where 10% of the infected had died, the worst case fatality rate for any Indian city. Worse, it had penetrated the State health unit. By April 24, as many as 110 health officials and their family members were infected in Bhopal. As for the police in Bhopal, 41 personnel and their family members have contracted the illness so far.

Coronavirus | Confusion over source of infection in Indore

The signs of an impending crisis were clear. On March 2, when the Centre issued its fifth travel advisory, the Congress was busy rescuing its MLAs reportedly being held hostage by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a Manesar hotel. On March 10, abandoning the State’s preparation for the pandemic, Health Minister Tulsiram Silawat was cooped up at a Bengaluru resort with 21 rebel Congress MLAs, who quit later. Until that day, 63 COVID-19 cases had been reported nationwide. By March 16, the virus had infected 126 people and killed two. It had entered 13 States, including neighbouring Maharashtra and Rajasthan. That was when a vexed BJP, sniffing power, chided the Speaker’s decision to adjourn the Vidhan Sabha session , in view of the pandemic’s threat, as a ploy to buy time.

A single-man Cabinet

Madhya Pradesh reacted late to the pandemic owing to Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s zeal for power, claimed Jitu Patwari, State Congress working president. “Otherwise, the State could have been saved. Around the time we planned to procure additional medical equipment, the Health Minister ran away. He had sold himself to the BJP,” he said.

On March 4, Nath held the first secretary-level meeting on the illness. The next day, a helpline was set up. Next, the IIFA awards ceremony, Nath’s long-cherished dream, was cancelled. On March 7, schools and colleges were ordered shut. Patwari alleged that the BJP “punctured a moving vehicle”.


The day after Chouhan took oath as the Chief Minister on March 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide curfew . Nath alleged Parliament was made to function just to offer a chance to the Speaker to run the Madhya Pradesh Assembly too. “This was so that my government could be toppled,” he alleged.

The turmoil not just delayed the State’s reaction, but the Centre’s too, said Sachin Jain, of the Right to Food campaign. “The lockdown was imposed 10 days late. Airports could not have shut operations as MLAs had to be flown to different cities citing horse-trading,” he said.

The day after taking charge, Chouhan looked away from the uptick in the COVID-19 cases to seven, instead preferring to reverse decisions taken by the outgoing regime first. He ordered the closure of the case of an economic offence against Jyotiraditya Scindia , who had crossed over to the BJP , cancelled appointments made to various commissions, and shunted out the Rajgarh Collector.

For nearly a month, Chouhan ran a single-man Cabinet . An opinion piece published by the public relations department even dubbed his role heroic, describing him as a “one-man army”. It was only on April 21 that five Ministers were appointed . Two of the Ministers, including Silawat, have held the health portfolio in the past. “Along with Chouhan, they did not develop the health infrastructure in the State, for which they owe an explanation now,” said Rasheed Kidwai, Visiting Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. In addition, the setting up of a COVID-19 task force, headed by State BJP president V.D. Sharma, has drawn flak for having on its ranks only politicians and their lackeys. “Compare Maharashtra’s team, comprising health experts, with ours, composed of only political lackeys,” said Kidwai.

An unlikely hotspot

On April 3, at 11 p.m., the Bhopal district administration released a list of new patients after deleting one name from it. The virus had penetrated the Health Department, the institutional bulwark supposedly meant to guard the State against its advance. Two days later, it was declared that an IAS officer, tasked with procuring drugs and equipment for the State, and also the Ayushman Bharat Yojana MD, had tested positive. No one knows where he got the illness. Today, the office of the Directorate of Health Services has turned into Bhopal’s biggest, and most unlikely, hotspot.

Coronavirus | IAS officer from Madhya Pradesh Health Department tests positive

Cases within the department, to its embarrassment, have refused to ebb. The virus is taking down at least two officials every day. Directors heading different verticals, doctors, peons, personal assistants, clerks and drivers have all have been infected. The six-floor office complex, Satpura Bhawan, was evacuated, sealed for 15 days, and sanitised repeatedly. Officials self-quarantined, as operations were moved online.

The case of the Principal Secretary, Public Health and Family Welfare, who tested positive the next day is the most peculiar. For at least three days, the department’s senior-most bureaucrat refused to be admitted to a hospital. Meanwhile, the residential enclave for bureaucrats and Ministers in Bhopal, Char Imli, was cordoned off. She continued releasing media bulletins every evening, and Chouhan hailed her resilience.

Pressure mounted on her after a photograph of four health workers, dressed in personal protective equipment and tending to her house, went viral on social media. Moreover, she was publicly accused of not self-isolating, despite her son’s return from the U.S. The Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission stepped in, seeking a response from the government over officials sidestepping treatment protocol. In the end, she relented and moved to a private hospital along with other infected officials. Not a dedicated ‘COVID-19’ facility until then, the hospital was immediately designated as one.

Meanwhile, other infected health workers showed reluctance to be treated at the AIIMS, Bhopal, with many alleging inadequate facilities. Another private facility was already treating their co-workers, and they were eager to shift there. “Well, they were infected together and wanted to recover from it together,” said Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, Health Commissioner.

Within the disease incubation period, an unusual bustle had taken over the Directorate March-end. Files changed numerous hands, back-to-back meetings were held, and officials moiled in the emergency mode against the pandemic. The National Health Mission staff also moved to the building to give a leg-up to mitigation efforts, but only to cram the space further.

Making matters worse, the community medicine department of the government-run Gandhi Medical College, which guides the State government in tackling the outbreak, went into quarantine on April 10, after a junior resident in the department tested positive. The team included a member of the COVID-19 technical advisory panel to the government. As of April 24, six staffers of the AIIMS, including doctors, had been infected too.

Coronavirus | Madhya Pradesh runs out of RNA extraction kits

The Principal Secretary, the Ayushman Bharat Yojana MD, and an Additional Director are the primary nodes of the spread within the department. The Deputy Secretary of the Medical Education Department and an Officer on Special Duty with the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, both IAS officers, have been infected too.

COVID-19 affects cops too

The day the Health Department registered its first case, the police found four of its personnel infected too. “Officials from the two departments were in contact at the workplace or casually,” said Rahul Rajak, a researcher who is mapping the outbreak in Bhopal.

Cases from the two departments converge mainly in TT Nagar, where a police housing society and a battalion are located, and several doctors reside. Health workers from different areas infected at least three policemen residing there while they were on duty. But in one case, a doctor and a policeman, both residing in TT Nagar, had mutual contact.

Imarti Devi. File

Imarti Devi, who was the Woman and Child Development Minister in the Kamal Nath Cabinet, arrives in Bhopal from New Delhi on March 21, 2020.


These policemen unwittingly carried the virus to their workplace, to the Aishbagh and Jahangirabad police stations. Batons, wireless sets, arms and logbooks changed hands with co-workers at the end of shifts. It was common for cops to squeeze into a patrol vehicle or a riot-control bus, awaiting orders. Infected officials unintentionally brought the virus upon family members — wives and mothers are infected mostly — in 19 different areas across the city. Stepping out for casual meetings or buying groceries, they in turn became potential carriers. To break this chain, the entire city police, 2,100 personnel, have checked into hotels.

Coronavirus | In Bhopal, policemen remain unfazed amid scare

Decoding the purpose of a meeting is important, said Rajak. “It reveals a patient’s physical proximity and the level of interaction with primary contacts, crucial for infection.” Swift action is the key to trump the virus, so once the infection is confirmed, patients get a call from a centre asking for who they met, and how.

More than half the infected in Jahangirabad, another hotspot with 55 cases, are primary contacts such as family members. Bhopal stared at the grim prospect of the densely populated area becoming like Indore’s congested hotspots. The Bhopal administration swung into action and took 1,000 samples for testing, to pre-empt an outbreak.

There is no single source for the infection in Bhopal. Several isolated cases have sprung up in 23 hotspots, having at least three cases each. All patients have been categorised along four verticals — the police, the health department, Tablighi Jamaat members, and others. Contrary to Chouhan’s claim, experts are yet to come across a strong link of the Jamaat members who have tested positive and other cases, either in Bhopal, where 23 members are infected, or in Indore.

From one tragedy to another

In an eerily familiar pattern now, eight of the nine who succumbed to the illness in Bhopal were survivors of the gas tragedy in 1984, which compromised their immunity severely. Two of them died on a hospital bed. After developing symptoms, the rest carried the virus unaware, hopping from hospital to hospital, scrambling to negotiate the paralysed healthcare system and a crippled referral system. Some landed outside shut hospitals, others were denied admission by hospitals fearing infection. Pushed to the brink, the patients could manage to reach a COVID-19 hospital only too late.

Coronavirus | Bhopal gas survivors left in the lurch

In one case, a man, gasping for breath, was taken to a government-run hospital, where no one provided him with oxygen support. Worried seeing his condition worsen, the sons lifted him out of an ambulance, but he died on the way inside within seconds. Another was denied ambulance service and admission by two private hospitals.

The virus attacked six of them so viciously, and swiftly, that they could not even wait for their test results to come in. Illnesses such as asthma, tuberculosis or cancer, caused by the methyl isocyanate leak from a pesticide plant in 1984, hastened the process. From 1998 to 2016, 50.4% of the survivors suffered from cardiovascular problems, 59.6% from pulmonary problems and 15.6% from diabetes, according to the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) .

Five of the deaths occurred when the ICMR-run BMHRC, the only super speciality facility for the survivors, remained out of bounds for them for 23 days. On March 23, tens of admitted patients were arbitrarily discharged as the facility was converted into a COVID-19 facility . Three died later of non-COVID-19 diseases. The government, facing flak, has restored the facility to treat only the survivors.

Not all who died were publicly declared the gas tragedy’s survivors by the Bhopal district authorities. Rachna Dhingra, of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said the ICMR-run National Institute for Research in Environmental Health, Bhopal, tasked with intervening for the survivors’ health, had not made any effort so far to identify, screen or test the gas tragedy survivors who also had chronic illnesses. “The institute should be pulled up for dereliction of duty for the deaths,” she said.

Referring to instances of patients being denied treatment in non-COVID-19 hospitals, Prabhakar Tiwari, Bhopal Chief Medical and Health Officer, said, “No hospital can deny admission to patients. Screening has been authorised at the six State-run hospitals too.” Thanks to the intervention by the Madhya Pradesh High Court, all patients of the BMHRC will be screened for COVID-19 now.

Outbreak in Indore

The largest and most populous city of Madhya Pradesh, Indore, had a close shave with the virus in January. Two Indian students had returned from China’s Wuhan, jostling with the pandemic then, but tested negative. Three months later today, a terrifying spectacle is playing out. Numbers have surged to four digits, deaths are piling, yet authorities are clueless about the outbreak’s source.

By April 12, deaths in Indore had shot to 32. Salil Sakalle, Professor, Community Medicine Department at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College (MGMMC), believes this could be explained by the fact that 55.3% of the 47 dead by April 17 having had illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, morbid obesity and chronic renal failure. These illnesses, combined with the virus to cause their deaths quickly. In addition, he said, 74% of the dead were above 50, with most reporting late to hospital. “They already suffered from respiratory distress by the time they first contacted the health system. And some carried a higher viral load,” he said. In fact, nearly 30% of the deceased suffered from such acute distress, they didn’t survive to see their COVID-19 test results.

Ujjain also sends its patients to Indore for treatment. As many as 10.7% of its patients have died of the illness until April 24. So, health experts are wondering whether the strain is of a more virulent type. “Most mortalities in the State have occurred in this area, and we are trying to find out the cause,” said Jyoti Bindal, the college’s Dean. Indore has recorded 55 of the 92 deaths in the State, and neighbouring districts Ujjain, Khargone and Dewas with it make up 85% of all the deaths. The college will send samples to the National Institute of Virology for automated gene sequencing virus culture, to ascertain the strain’s nature.

Coronavirus | All residents of Indore set to be screened for Influenza-Like Illness and Severe Acute Respiratory Illness


As recent cases were mostly primary contacts of the infected, already in quarantine, it was helping to stop the spread to newer areas, said Akash Tripathi, Indore Commissioner.

The outbreak in Indore, which detected its first case on March 22, had occurred in densely populated adjoining clusters, with no single source. In most cases, the spread in newer areas had separate carriers. By April 14, cases had grown by almost four times in 10 days to 427. As of April 24, the number had soared to 1,029, making up around 66% of the State’s tally.


Faced with spiralling cases and deaths, 12 doctors and seven nurses getting infected until April 22 and health workers being roughed up and chased away on two occasions while conducting a survey, Indore authorities have started regulating the information flow.

First, the MGMMC was divested of its daily task of releasing a three-page comprehensive media bulletin. By contrast, district authorities have been issuing a single-page bulletin. Second, an Additional Director in the State Public Relations Department, Mangla Prasad Mishra, has been deputed by the State government to “resolve the crisis within Indore’s electronic media, especially pertaining to official figures,” as he put it.

On April 18, the State bulletin inexplicably removed 17 cases in six districts over the previous day, to bring down the tally. On April 16, the government claimed to have tested 3,896 samples, a dubious 41% jump from the previous day. This further dented the credibility of official figures, as the spike was incongruous with individual testing data from centres and much higher than testing patterns nationwide.

In Bhopal, another journalist who took part in Mr. Nath’s meeting tested positive later. “Cases are surging rapidly and no one seems in control. The appointment of a Health Minister, at last, is a good step,” said the first journalist who tested positive for the virus.

On April 22, Narottam Mishra was appointed to helm the Health Department , rudderless for 40 days. But the political drama, and backroom manoeuvering, is far from over. Though the virus is here to stay and gnaws at a crumbling health system, 24 seats in the State Assembly will be up for grabs within five months. “No matter how important an event, human life must come first,” said the journalist.

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