The majority of the coronavirus cases in state capital Thiruvananthapuram are from coastal regions.

Three healthcare workers covered in white PPE kit can be seen in a room where one of them collects swab from a grey-haired man sitting down wearing blue clothes
Coronavirus Coronavirus Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 08:41

Mabel Antony from Vizhinjam in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram was relieved when lockdown rules were eased in June. She could finally resume selling fish for a livelihood. 

“I get fish from Vizhinjam harbour. I take them by auto rickshaw to the city, then sell them by either walking through the housing colonies or sitting on the road side. When lockdown was announced, I had no income. When it was relaxed, we all went to the harbour again. The police used to shout at us to wear masks and maintain distance. But that never happened,” narrates Mabel. 

“It was a huge crowd at the landing area. None of us bothered to wear masks or wash hands. I am sure that nobody followed any instructions from the police. Sometimes, there were hundreds of people in the harbour. We were never scared. But now we realise that was a mistake,” she says. 

It is a similar story across coastal Thiruvananthapuram. With coastal communities returning to work after the easing of  lockdown restrictions, authorities in the state capital failed to reach the grassroots on awareness and safety.

“At one point, the police were tired of telling people who gathered. They stopped. People here considered police as a nuisance. There was no one else to explain or to fully convince everyone here. After lockdown (ended), everyone was trying to get back their livelihood. That went wrong,” says Solomon, a fisherman from Poonthura where Kerala reported its first case of COVID-19 community spread.

On July 1, there was just one case from the coastal suburb of Poonthura. Within a month, however, a majority of cases in the district were from Poonthura and its neighbouring areas. At the start of July, there were 78 COVID-19 patients in Thiruvananthapuram; as of Monday, there are 2,788 patients. By July 17, Poonthura and Pulluvila were confirmed to have community spread with uncontrollable local transmission.

T Peter, General Secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum, points out that mismanagement led to overcrowding at the markets, which in turn caused a spike in cases of the coronavirus.

“The lack of a system was the main reason. There was auctioning, where people gathered in crowds. The crowd was uncontrollable — traders from outside, people who wanted to buy fish, sellers and bidders. This is a sector where we cannot easily implement regulations,” he observes.

“There were government orders on fish management committees to regulate crowds and decide prices of the fish that landed daily. The government had asked to avoid middlemen like bidders at the harbour to avoid crowding. But that was not followed or implemented properly. We needed proper storage facilities, waiting areas, a clean and tidy harbour and fish-landing centers. A time should have been fixed for the fish landing. But we failed in all these and it resulted in a huge crowd,” Peter notes.

He also said that the authorities failed to convince people of the necessity of this system. 

“Getting religious establishments involved in awareness and containment activities is a necessity in coastal regions. Tactical movement was needed in coastal regions. But that was not there — people had no awareness. Now they do, as many of the local youth themselves are involved in awareness campaigns,” Peter says.

Though the government had ordered not to conduct auctions, it was not followed by the majority of coastal regions. There was nobody to check this either. There were no restrictions for outsiders to enter the fish landing centers until a few cases were reported from the coastal regions of Thiruvananthapuram.

The first coronavirus positive case near Poonthura was a fish seller from Kumarichantha, who had been frequently travelling to Kanyakumari.

“Outsiders were coming into the region without any regulations. People came to buy fish, small-scale fish sellers also frequented the region,” Peter Solomon, Poonthura municipal ward councillor, told TNM.

When the rest of the areas in the district were deserted with very few activities taking place, coastal regions were active as usual. 

“Fish markets, fish landing areas and harbours in the district were totally neglected from implementing the regulations,” a junior health inspector from the district told TNM.

Fishing regulations were partially relaxed in the last week of April. All traditional fishing, except fishing using gill nets (kambavala) and seine boats (thattamadi), were allowed. Kambavala and Thattamadi, where more than 50 fishermen form groups for fishing, were banned as it would lead to crowds. Some of the fishers’ organisations had warned that these relaxations might cause disease spread as there are more than 20,000 traditional fishing boats in Kerala apart from Kambavala and Thattamadi. This would naturally create a crowd at fish landing centers.

“Fishing is a community-based occupation. Fishing in country boats with one or two persons is very rare. So the regulations allowing fishing are impractical. Initially, we followed the complete lockdown announced by the government. Later, there were relaxations in the industry, crowds started forming in harbours and coastal areas. When fishing resumed, people started flowing into the harbours to buy fish. Outsiders also started coming. Finally, everything went out of hand,” says Charles George, president of the Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi.

He adds, “There was not enough surveillance. We had always asked for a team of police and health workers present in coastal areas. The lack of proper vigilance caused this situation.”

Charles had objected to the relaxations in fishing and sought compensation so that fishermen can stay home without worrying about their livelihood. Only with the support and proper intervention from the government can regulations be properly implemented in coastal regions, believes Charles.

“We have been asking for a fish drought package. A proper regulation in fishing and providing the fishermen a package to face this difficult situation would have reduced the spread. Fishing is important, but at this time we need restrictions on it. There will be huge loss for the poor fishermen. The government should compensate and ask them to limit their work,” he urges.

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