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Coronavirus | What turned Koyambedu, Chennai’s popular wholesale complex market, into a COVID-19 hotspot?

The story so far: Koyambedu, Chennai’s popular wholesale market, is now the epicentre of the largest cluster of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tamil Nadu. Keeping the large, sprawling market open in the midst of an epidemic, with little or no precautionary measures, has proved costly for the State. Cases from the cluster started to emerge during the last week of April. The infection has now reached far and wide, quietly spreading to erstwhile less-affected districts of the State as labourers from the market made their way back to their hometowns. As of May 8, 2020, 1,589 cases of the State’s total COVID-19 count of 6,009 are linked to this market.

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What turned the bustling Koyambedu market into a hotspot?

Overcrowding and congestion are nothing new to the Koyambedu wholesale market. The scenario was no different after the first phase of the lockdown. The rush of people to the market only grew whenever the State government announced a lockdown or imposed restrictions on its working hours as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19, much in contrast to the aim of the government authorities. From day one of the lockdown in March, the market received a steady flow of visitors — retailers who relied on the premises for supply, and individual customers. Even though the lockdown was in place, the market witnessed a rush a day ahead of Tamil New Year that falls on April 14 for purchases. From then on, the same situation persisted as people resorted to panic buying. Various government agencies swung into action to control the crowds visiting the market in order to prevent disease transmission. By the end of April, the Koyambedu market — there was scant regard for physical distancing — turned into the largest hotspot for COVID-19, with several districts in the State witnessing a spillover of cases. The market has been closed since May 5 but the cluster continues to trigger a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Why is the Koyambedu wholesale market different from any other urban market in the country?

Conceived to decongest the core parts of the city, the Koyambedu wholesale market complex was established at what was then a peripheral area to bring the city’s wholesale and retail perishable goods trade under one roof; there were facilities for truck terminals. Much of the trade from what was the city’s traditional wholesale fruits and vegetables market, in Kothawal Chavadi, was shifted to Koyambedu. An area of 295 acres was earmarked and allotted to set up the market complex. Established in 1996, the Koyambedu market complex is one of Asia’s largest hubs for perishable goods. Spread over 65 acres, the wholesale fruits, flowers and vegetables market receives a staggering number of visitors every day — one lakh. During the festive season, this number may go up to two lakh visitors. On an average, the market receives 400 truckloads of vegetables alone every day. Besides individual customers from a radius of 10 km visiting the market for its variety and affordable rates, retail vendors from a minimum radius of 100 km, including Arakkonam, Gummidipoondi and Villupuram, use the market to pick up fresh produce. It now houses a wholesale food grains market too. The sheer size of business and the large variety of goods available and bustling market in a confined space make Koyambedu different from other markets.

Also read | No physical distancing at Koyambedu market, crowd inflow makes screening difficult

How did the large scale spread happen?

The Koyambedu market has nearly 3,750 licensed shops which sell fruits, flowers and vegetables, wholesale and retail. The market begins to receive fresh arrivals from the southern States as well as beyond including Maharashtra, from 10 p.m. and sales continue well into the next day. The nature of the market is such that people and vehicles from various parts of the State and across the country visit the market during different hours of the day. There are about 10,000 labourers in the market. During the lockdown, physical distancing norms were affected as people attempted to purchase produce during the restricted hours. Though measures were taken to close sections of the market in phases and restrict the crowds during the lockdown period, the damage had already been done and the market beacme conducive for transmission.

As the retail market closed in April-end, many labourers who did not find enough work, shelter and food left the city for their home towns in the trucks that had arrived at the market. Till then, they had turned the marketplace into their temporary homes, sleeping in vehicles and on platforms within the market. In the last one week, the infection has spread to at least half of Tamil Nadu.

Also read | Despite lockdown, roads choked with vehicles near Koyambedu market

The World Health Organisation defines clusters of cases as countries/territories/areas experiencing cases, clustered in time, geographic location and/or by common exposures. This holds true for the Koyambedu cluster. As vendors began to test positive in Chennai, market labourers including loadmen were infected in many districts of the State such as Ariyalur, Perambalur, Cuddalore, Villupuram, Chengalpet and Tiruvallur. While the government managed to trace and test all index cases, what marked the beginning of a challenging process was contact tracing. The cluster was different owing to the massive crowds involved. In a normal situation, a person who tests positive for COVID-19 will have 20 to 30 contacts. But, public health officials pointed out, this was not the case with the Koyambedu cluster where some who tested positive had roughly 200 to 250 contacts.

Will the lessons learnt from this pandemic help to shape the future of urban markets?

Urban planning experts note that markets where there are daily activities that are large scale in nature with huge congregations need more attention. According to A. Srivathsan, professor, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, the Koyambedu market, with its confined spaces and shops that are packed closely, was denser than a shopping mall in the city. Instead of one large central unit, there is a need to establish multiple markets in the city that is growing in the periphery.

Also read | Officials in Nellore on alert as Koyambedu cases rise

Experts note that the design of the market should be decided after taking into account various factors that include sanitation. More options for sourcing and the delivery of goods need to be thought of in order to reduce crowding in one place.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 1:38:24 PM |

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