Tamil Nadu CM writes on how the State is stopping the pandemic in its tracks

"The world is watching us to know how we are going to tackle the deadly virus"

Updated - April 01, 2020 10:24 am IST

Published - April 01, 2020 12:02 am IST

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world — 204 countries/regions/territories so far. In India, the first case was reported from Kerala on January 30, 2020. The first case in Tamil Nadu was reported on March 7 —a person in Kancheepuram who had travelled abroad.

Realising the nature of this virus quite early on and even when this dreaded infection was confined to one country alone, in January 2020, I directed the State Health Department to screen all the international passengers who had arrived in the State. To curtail community spread, Amma’s [Jayalalithaa’s] government wasted no time in closing down educational institutions and all high-risk areas such as big commercial complexes, malls, theatres, places of worship and so on, on March 15. When positive cases began showing up in the neighbouring States, I announced the closure of the State’s borders as well, again on March 15.

The Tamil Nadu government made a life-saving decision on March 24, which was announced by me in the Legislative Assembly — of a complete ‘lockdown’ and the imposition of Section 144 of the Code Of Criminal Procedure throughout the State till March 31. Our call for social distancing was further strengthened when the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India made the announcement of a national-level lockdown till April 14, 2020 on the same evening which was intended to break the infection chain. The participation by 1.3 billion Indians in this national exercise once again proves our unity in diversity.

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Augmenting infrastructure

Tamil Nadu shares its boundary with States which reported COVID-19 positive cases in the early days of infection in India. The four international airports and four major ports in the State also compounded the risk of infection in the State. But the Tamil Nadu government was ready and around 2.09 lakh international passengers have been screened besides screening data obtained from the Immigration Department on persons who are natives of Tamil Nadu but who have entered the country through an airport other than Chennai. As a result of this screening, around 43,537 people are under home quarantine and observation as on date for a period of 28 days. The houses of this high-risk category have been identified and stickers were pasted in front of their residences. They are being monitored through audio/video calls made from a dedicated district control room by doctors posted there round the clock. They have also been given medical advice and counselling.

Since Tamil Nadu is right now transiting to Stage II of COVID-19 transmission, the State government has in place a detailed ‘Local Containment Plan’ of conducting door-to-door surveillance in the zones where positive cases have been identified. People who are identified through active surveillance will be facility quarantined. Passive surveillance to trace the contacts of positive persons outside the zone is also being undertaken in parallel.

The first exclusive block to treat COVID-19 patients has been set up at Chennai’s Omandurar Government Medical College Hospital, with a capacity of 500 beds; ₹10 crore has also been allocated for the required medical equipment. There are also dedicated COVID-19 hospitals in each district to treat confirmed cases. All medical college hospitals and district headquarters hospitals have been designated as hospitals for the management of suspected patients. Quarantine facilities have also been arranged for passengers arriving from affected countries. These are at Poonamallee, Madurai, Coimbatore and Tiruchi, which are close to all four international airports in the State. The Health Department has earmarked about 17,000 beds in isolation wards; 3,018 of those are equipped with ventilator facilities. I have also ensured the scaling up of the procurement of essential medical equipment, protective gear for health workers, and drugs and medicines. The Health Department has managed to establish 17 COVID-19 testing laboratories to cover all the regions of the State. I am personally reviewing and monitoring these steps.

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I have extended full support to all frontline workers (doctors, nurses, para-medical staff and sanitary workers) who are working round the clock. A decision has been made to recruit 530 doctors, 1,000 nurses and 1,508 lab technicians to augment the robust medical team already in place. Ambulance services have also been increased, by 200.

The challenges in providing adequate masks and other personal protective equipment for health-care workers are being met. I have advised the District Collectors to involve self-help group members to manufacture triple-layered masks and hand sanitisers to augment supply. Highly populated and crowded areas, market places, bus stands, other public places and dwelling areas are being disinfected regularly. Thermal screening is being done in public places and government offices. Besides creating awareness on frequent hand washing through advertisements, hand washing and sanitising platforms have been installed in places of public gathering. I have announced an additional one month’s salary in recognition of the untiring work by frontline health workers.

Addressing fundamentals

The national lockdown will have a telling impact on the poorest and daily-wage workers in the unorganised sector. An immediate and comprehensive relief package of ₹3,280 crore has been announced. All rice card holders will receive rice, sugar, dhal and edible oil free for April along with ₹1,000 each. Besides, as a mark of addressing their undue hardship, workers in the unorganised sector including auto-rickshaw drivers will get 15 kg rice, 1 kg dhal, 1 kg oil free and ₹1,000 each. Pavement vendors will get an extra ₹1,000 each. Also, migrant workers from other States will receive the commodities in equal measure. For those migrant labourers who are without shelter, community halls/marriage halls are being utilised, where hot, nutritious cooked food is being provided, apart from medical facilities.

The nationally acclaimed State initiative, “Amma Canteens”, which provide meals at subsidised rates, will serve the needy. Keeping in mind the well-being of Anganwadi children, dry ration for 15 days is being provided in advance to families to meet nutritional requirements. Those under isolation are also provided with nutritious and vitamin-rich food. Senior citizens, who are being served by Anganwadi centres, will be provided food at their places of stay.

I have announced an additional two days wages to cover those rural households which are dependent on their employment under MGNREGA for their livelihood. Around 1.5 lakh pregnant women who are due in the next 60 days are under close monitoring. Necessary steps have been taken to provide medicines for the next two months to patients with hypertension, diabetes mellitus, HIV and TB.

Ensuring physical distancing

The failure of many advanced countries in handling the pandemic has given us enough wisdom not to take the lockdown lightly. Since India has a large number of densely populated urban areas, the world is watching us to know how we are going to tackle the deadly virus.

However, to make this happen, the singular message of social distancing should percolate to every individual citizen. Several effective communication materials have been circulated in the media and displayed in all the public places highlighting the necessity of isolation and staying at home. The State government has a dedicated website (https://stopcorona.tn.gov.in/) to pass on verified and valuable messages. Severe legal action is being taken against violators and those spreading rumours on the spread of the infection and its treatment.

There are several initiatives to increase the number of field functionaries to create awareness and to monitor the home quarantine individuals; as on date, around 38,809 volunteers have registered themselves and the count is increasing every day.

For active enforcement of the lockdown and to address the important issues , we have constituted 11 co-ordination teams with senior-level IAS officers. I have also constituted a State-level task force headed by Chief Secretary to monitor the preventive measures.

Using video-conferencing, we are frequently reviewing the District Collectors for effective and timely implementation of all the steps. With all the schools, colleges, shopping malls, and cinema theatres closed, adequate supply of daily basic necessities including groceries, agricultural products, milk and medicines are being ensured. Petrol bunks will operate till 2.30 p.m. Only parcel services are being allowed from restaurants. Call centres are operating 24x7 to offer assistance. I have also set up a ‘Crisis Management Committee’ in all districts under the chairmanship of District Collectors, with representatives from the Chambers of Commerce, private hospitals, NGOs and other stakeholders. I have directed all the Ministers to coordinate prevention and treatment aspects in the districts.

Energising the economy

It is the responsibility of State governments to ensure the welfare of the poor and the vulnerable. Like many State governments, Tamil Nadu too has also announced relief packages. The Centre has supported these measures with its Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana relief package. The timely intervention of the Reserve Bank of India in announcing liquidity and interest rate reduction measures will also help the economy. However, the economic impact of this unprecedented lockdown is likely to be very severe and State governments will suffer substantial reductions in tax and revenue receipts. A lot of measures will have to be taken to revive economic growth and to stimulate consumption and investment demand. The Centre should help the States continuously in this regard. To overcome this crisis, I have therefore written to the Prime Minister, requesting the Centre to allocate a special grant of ₹1-lakh crore to all the States including ₹9,000 crore to Tamil Nadu; relax, as a one-time measure, the fiscal deficit norm of 3% of GSDP for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 and permit, during 2020-21, additional borrowing of 33% above the previous year’s level.

At this juncture, our priority is to fully focus on the eradication of the pandemic. After achieving this primary goal, I hope the country as a whole will join hands and provide the necessary thrust to the economy.

Edappadi K. Palaniswami isthe Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu

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