30/07/2020 1:16 PM IST

Bengaluru’s Covid-19 Cases Soar: This Is Where The Karnataka Govt Is Falling Short

Coronavirus cases in Bengaluru crossed 50,000 on Wednesday as 2,270 tested positive.

MANJUNATH KIRAN via Getty Images
Municipality officials stick a banner on a vehicle transporting lab workers from Primary Health Centres (PHC) to conduct tests using Rapid Antigen test kits in containment zones in Bangalore on July 17, 2020

Coronavirus cases in Bengaluru, which was hailed as an initial success story, have been steadily rising for the past month. The Karnataka capital on Wednesday recorded 2,270 new Covid-19 cases, taking the total tally to 51,091. 

A week-long lockdown in the city had ended on 22 July, with Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa saying that it was not the solution for controlling Covid-19. He said that while Karnataka was successful in stemming the virus in the beginning, cases have seen a surge in recent days, especially in Bengaluru, which is home to millions of migrants. 

The solution, he said, was wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. 

Experts told HuffPost India that while a rise in testing was to an extent responsible for the surge in cases, contact tracing and a shortage of staff at hospitals remain major hurdles. Frontline workers have also gone on strike asking for fixed salaries and basic demands such as adequate masks and gloves.

The city tested over 9,000 samples on Tuesday, according to a BBMP update. “We have enhanced our testing capacity significantly. From testing under 5,000 samples per day in July, it’s now 10,000 on average. On some days in the past week, we’ve even tested 12,000 or more samples,” BBMP commissioner N Manjunath Prasad Prasad told The Times of India

The increased positivity rate also indicates that the virus is spreading, leading to many more people experiencing symptoms and being identified because of the expanded testing programme, said Shreelata Rao Seshadri, a professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. 

But one of the major points of criticism authorities have been facing is over their lack of preparedness as the state emerged out of the national lockdown. Professor K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a PPP initiative for public health, had told HuffPost India earlier this month that Bengaluru’s cautious approach and perfect public health playbook were discarded as it began the unlock phase. 

Contact tracing and the lack of staff at hospitals are other issues, experts said, which have plagued Bengaluru’s response to Covid-19.

Not enough doctors, unpaid frontline workers

The New Indian Express reported that government hospitals don’t have enough staff members to deal with the rising number of patients, and that private hospitals are refusing to even admit people due to this reason.

Earlier this month, a video of a Bengaluru doctor appealing to other doctors to come and join the battle against coronavirus went viral. “I have beds. I have oxygen beds. I have ventilators. I have another 30 beds like this, but I don’t have doctors working here. I find them all on WhatsApp. I need six hours of your time a day. This is the time to show that you care. Right now, you and I, my fellow doctors, are on the frontline,” Dr Taha Mateen, MD at HBS Hospital, said in the video. 

Dr Krishnamurthy Jayanna, Associate Dean of Research and Professor at Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences, told HuffPost India that there have been several reports of hospitals not admitting patients, either because of a shortage of beds or due to lack of manpower.  

“Addressing these issues are critical through adequate confidence-building measures and it should be part of the preparation process,” he said, adding that the government is making progress in increasing the number of beds. 

Bengaluru’s biggest Covid-19 care facility was inaugurated on Monday. Bangalore International Exhibition Centre, which has been repurposed as a Covid care facility, will have over 10,000 beds. It was inaugurated with 6,500 beds in the first phase — 5,000 for Covid patients and 1,500 for health care workers — The Newsminute reported.

Seshadri said that even at such a critical time, “we hear about doctors going on strike because they have not been paid on time and because there isn’t enough personal protective equipment for frontline workers.” These are important management and governance issues, she added.

ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers went on a strike earlier this month and boycotted work to demand a fixed salary of Rs 12,000 per month. They also asked for protective kits and an adequate number of masks, sanitisers and gloves. They protested on Wednesday at Anand Rao Circle in Bengaluru, according to The New Indian Express

The workers, who are often the primary point of contact for patients, said they got a positive response on Tuesday after a meeting with Yediyurappa, Deputy Chief Minister Dr CN Ashwath Narayan and Health Minister B Sriramulu, but that they wanted the assurance in writing, the report added.

The ministers have reportedly asked for two days, after which they will discuss the wage hike. 

Contact tracing

This remains a challenge for the authorities. Epidemiologist Giridhar Babu had toldThe Print last week that BBMP has been using manpower to identify people and transport patients to hospitals instead of just contact tracing and ramping up testing. 

Krishnamurthy Jayanna suggested involving NGOs and community-based organisations in the complex operation, given the number of cases. 

“We cannot depend only on our frontline health workers who have been continuously on the field for the last many weeks. We have to figure out effective participation of communities and families, role of civil society, NGOs and community based organisations,” he said.

Over 3,000 Covid-19 patients in Bengaluru arestill untraceable. “From the beginning till now, there have been 3,338 people whose samples at the labs returned positive but they are untraceable in Bengaluru. We are working on addressing the issue,” Prasad toldThe Times of India on Sunday. He said these people had given wrong contact information.  

Seshadri pointed out that urban health is a problem across the country and Bengaluru is no exception. “The public health network in urban areas is in tatters, and the private sector has proliferated. But the private sector has no incentive to provide preventive services like contact tracing or even testing,” she said, pointing out that private labs and hospitals were charging exorbitant rates for testing till the government stepped in. 

The Karnataka government last week reduced the price cap on Covid-19 tests in public laboratories from Rs 2,250 to Rs 2,000 and from Rs 4,500 to Rs 3,000 in private laboratories.

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