From a peak of 1,150 containment zones across Chennai, it has now fallen to 201 as of May 31.

Chennai’s COVID-19 cases rise, but containment zones reduce: Here’s whyImage for representation/PTI
Coronavirus Coronavirus Wednesday, June 03, 2020 - 19:16

Over the past few days, Chennai has been consistently reporting over 500 new cases of COVID-19 everyday. In fact, between May 19 and May 31, the lowest number of new cases was reported on May 26 (510 cases) and the highest number of cases was reported on May 31 (804 cases).

However, from a peak of 1150 containment zones earlier, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) gradually began removing a large number of areas from its list. On May 31, the total number of containment zones under GCC limits was reduced to just 201. 

This huge reduction in the number of containment zones in the city even as coronavirus cases continues to rise has raised several questions including how GCC was demarcating the zones.  

Containment zones are areas from where positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported in a district. These areas are generally barricaded by the police and the entry and exit of people in these spots are restricted and monitored by the local body workers. Every state frames its own criteria for designating an area as a containment zone. 

Redefining containment zones

Initially, the Chennai Corporation had designated a five-km radius around the house of those who tested positive for the virus. In addition to this, the GCC also applied restriction on a buffer zone of three km radius beyond the containment zone. Even if a single positive case was reported from a street, the entire street was barricaded as per protocol and restrictions on the entry and exit of people were enforced. 

However, on May18, the state government issued an order which redefined the criteria for designating an area as a containment zone. According to the order, “Containment zone is formed for areas where a cluster of cases or clusters of cases emerges. A cluster is defined as an area where more than five cases are reported or five families and more are affected by COVID-19”. This essentially meant that for an area to be marked as a containment zone, at least five persons must be tested positive for novel coronavirus in the area. 

This change in definition caused the GCC to reevaluate and remove many areas specified as containment zones from the list, thus bringing down the number to 201 by May 31. 

Why was the definition revised? 

A senior officer with the GCC told TNM that the change in the criteria of a containment zone came based on ‘previous experience’. “There is no point in creating inconvenience to the people living in a particular area because one person got COVID-19 there. Hence it was decided to expand the definition to include a larger number,” he said, requesting anonymity. 

He further explained that demarcating an area as a containment zone comes with a lot of responsibilities like increased surveillance and deployment of more work force of the GCC. 

Chennai’s civic body removes an area from the list of containment zones if there has been no fresh cases of COVID-19 from that area for 14 consecutive days. Earlier, a zone will be removed as a containment zone only if no new cases are reported from the area for 28 days. 

“This reduction in the number of days might also have caused that decrease in the number of containment zones in the city,” the officer added. 

Contact tracing more important

However, T Sundararaman, the former Dean of the School of Health Systems Studies in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) said that creating containment zones is not as important or effective as strict contact tracing. 

“This is a disease that does not spread concentrically. It spreads through contact. So if my neighbour has this disease I am not necessarily in great danger of getting it. However, if my vegetable vendor who is two streets away gets COVID-19, I might be at a higher risk. So, it is much more important to do contact tracing and the contacts may come from a very dispersed area,” he explained. He also added that drawing a containment zone is like putting a hammer down on the wood without knowing where the nail is. 

Coming down heavily on the state government’s policy of treating COVID-19 patients with very mild or mild symptoms at COVID care centres or in home isolation, Sundararaman said that this was a recipe for disaster. “This will lead to more fatalities if the practise is not done away with. It is highly recommended to bring all patients irrespective of the severity into some form of institutional care in the presence of doctors,” he added.