On Monday evening, doctors of Vijayawada Government General Hospital spoke to the media about the steps being taken by the hospital, and the Andhra Pradesh government, to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease in the state. Stating that the people of Andhra need not worry about the disease, GGH Superintendent Dr P Nancharaiah repeated a comment made by Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy one day earlier.
Saying that the novel coronavirus was no more dangerous than the swine influenza virus (SIV) or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Dr Nancharaiah said that patients affected by COVID-19 disease are also treated with the same medicine as in the case of any viral fever - paracetamol. “Paracetamol is like Sanjeevani for all fevers,” he said, referring to the Hindu mythological plant believed to cure deadly diseases.
The statement came a day after Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy alleged that the State Election Commissioner (SEC) was using the coronavirus outbreak as an ‘excuse’ to delay local body elections in the state. He too made the paracetamol remark. Though paracetamol is one of the medicines used to treat the symptoms of COVID-19, the comment has come under much criticism for being dismissive of a disease that’s killed scores across the globe.
While neighbouring states like Karnataka, Telangana and Tamil Nadu have announced partial or complete shutdown of educational institutions, commercial complexes and have restricted large public gatherings to avoid an imminent outbreak, the Andhra government has not given any such instructions so far. Although the Chief Minister mentioned the eventual temporary shutdown of schools and commercial establishments on Sunday, while lashing out at the SEC’s decision, no formal directions have come from the government so far, and many colleges and schools have continued to function.
Officials have been claiming that there is no reason to panic, as only one case of coronavirus has been confirmed in the state so far, in Nellore town. The argument seems to be that since there have been no cases of local transmission yet, there is no need for stringent measures to enforce physical distancing among people.
Though the state has announced massive santisiation, has placed order for more ventilators and is generally sprucing up the health systems, their public reaction seems to be driven by the political need to conduct the local body elections.
After the Chief Minister asking the SEC to not cancel elections, Chief Secretary Nilam Sawhney in her letter to the SEC requesting that the election process in the state be continued uninterrupted, said that the state is prepared to handle the containment of COVID-19 for three to four weeks, and that the situation can be ‘unpredictable’ after that. She also wrote that since neither local nor community transmission has begun, an outbreak of alarming proportion is unlikely in the next few weeks.
Dr M Venkata Ramana, former state president of the APJUDA (Andhra Pradesh Junior Doctors Association), says that although a few measures have been taken by the state to promote awareness on usage of masks and other maintaining hygiene to avoid exposure to the virus, this may not be enough. “Government doctors have also conducted rallies and taken measures to spread awareness about precautions. But we also need measures to ensure physical distancing,” he said.
Although only a single positive case has been detected in the state, “once the virus enters a mass gathering, it will become impossible to control. We cannot authoritatively say that there's no danger for 3-4 weeks,” Dr Venkata Ramana says, adding that if the situation goes out of hand, the government would be responsible for not acting sooner.
The CM himself has said that situation is only likely to intensify in the coming weeks, as more people return to the state from COVID-19 affected countries, requiring more stringent action in the coming weeks.
Jagan’s trivialising remarks regarding the coronavirus epidemic have also received severe flak. The CM claimed that the COVID-19 disease is not very dangerous for most people, and that paracetamol is sufficient to treat it. He also said that bleaching powder must be sprayed on the belongings of people returning from abroad, and showing symptoms of COVID-19.
Leader of Opposition and former CM Chandrababu Naidu has condemned the government’s lackadaisical approach to the problem. “Coronavirus claims lives and it spreads VERY VERY fast. It cannot be taken lightly, especially by a man sitting on the CM's chair. Shocked to see YS Jagan say that it can be treated with Paracetamol," Naidu had tweeted. Calling Jagan’s attitude irresponsible, Naidu also said that if the situation intensifies, the infrastructure in the state would be inadequate to handle it.
The Chief Secretary in her communication with the SEC has also suggested measures like issuing advisories on campaigning, and congregation at the polling stations. “Candidates can be encouraged to use electronic media for campaigning and queues on the poll day can be restricted and staggered by the election staff,” she wrote.
While the elections were originally scheduled to be held on March 21, 24, 27 and 29, as on Tuesday, the state government is yet to issue any advisories regarding social distancing, despite the central government’s advisory to shut down all educational institutions, gyms, cinema halls and other establishments till March 31.
Until last week, large crowds from across India and the world continued to visit the Tirumala temple. On Sunday, thousands of people from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as well as different parts of Andhra were in Kadiri town for a huge religious procession on the streets, which is part of an annual temple festival. Not only was the gathering not prevented, but special buses were reportedly arranged by the APSRTC (Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation) for the occasion.
The YSRCP government has been adamant on going ahead with the elections, and has even moved the Supreme Court in this regard. Meanwhile, the State Election Commissioner Ramesh Kumar wrote back to the Chief Secretary, stating that Maharashtra, West Bengal and Odisha have also put local body elections on hold, as the coronavirus outbreak is “a circumstance beyond anticipation”.