News Brief

Four Reasons Why Tamil Nadu Is Reporting More Covid-19 Cases; Chennai’s Main Vegetable Market Turns Super-Spreader

M R Subramani

May 06, 2020, 05:25 PM | Updated 06:15 PM IST

Koyambedu Vegetable Market (@AwesomeMachi/Twitter)
Koyambedu Vegetable Market (@AwesomeMachi/Twitter)
  • The Koyambedu market, that has sprung up over 64 acres in the central part of Chennai, has become a Coronavirus super-spreader and is even earning a nickname as ‘Coronavirus market’.
  • The number of novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in Tamil Nadu doubled in nine days to over 4,000 yesterday (5 May) with its capital Chennai alone contributing to 65 per cent of the cases during the period.

    Yesterday, Tamil Nadu government said 508 persons had tested positive for Covid-19 with the total number rising to 4,058.

    Of these cases, Chennai with 2,008 makes up nearly 50 per cent of the total.

    In the last nine days, the number of persons who have tested positive in Chennai for the pandemic virus is 1,420.

    So far, 33 persons have died due to Coronavirus with 20 of them in Chennai.

    Until Chennai’s number began to show an alarming rise, the Coronavirus situation seemed to be well within control in Tamil Nadu.

    One of the major reasons for the numbers rising in Tamil Nadu, in general, and Chennai, in particular, is the capital’s principal vegetable, fruits and flower market at Koyambedu.

    Nothing can be more illustrative that the Tamil Nadu government in its daily press note on 4 and 5 May making a small remark that “a large number of today’s cases are linked to (the) Koyambedu market”.

    The Koyambedu market, that has sprung up over 64 acres in the central part of the city, has become a Coronavirus super-spreader and even earning a nickname as “Coronavirus market”.

    Until the Koyambedu market factor reared its head, Tamil Nadu and, especially Chennai, witnessed Coronavirus cases due to three reasons. The rise in the positive cases can also be attributed to over 10,000 people being tested daily since 1 May.

    The first was natives returning to Tamil Nadu from abroad. The second was those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat Aalami Markaz Nizamuddin congregations at Delhi in March.

    At one point of time, the Tablighi Jamaat cases made up 88 per cent of the total cases in Tamil Nadu.

    The third reason is a prayer house meeting held at Pulianthope in north Madras that falls under the TVK Nagar jurisdiction of Greater Chennai Corporation.

    The prayer house meeting was attended by 20 persons, including a couple of Tamil Nadu Health Department frontline workers, who were later found to be Covid-19 positive.

    These workers had reportedly infected the rest of those who attended the meeting.

    One of those who attended the meeting and got infected was a flower vendor having her outlet in Koyambedu.

    If she was one of the factors infecting Chennai’s main vegetable and fruits market, two truck drivers who came from North India were the second factor.

    Both the drivers tested positive for Coronavirus later, thus setting off a chain of reactions that led to the pandemic virus spreading not just to the other parts of the State but also to neighbouring Kerala.

    Yesterday, Kerala reported that a truck driver who travelled to the Koyambedu market and stayed there for four days had tested positive for Coronavirus.

    The driver, in turn, has left his wife, mother, and truck cleaner’s son infected with the pandemic virus.

    Television news channels in Kerala last evening indulged in fear-mongering that the Koyambedu market could leave around 10,000 people infected.

    The current situation in Chennai can well be explained by the fact that 5,225 persons are being tested in the capital for every 10 lakh population.

    This is three times more than what is being done in the State and seven times higher than the national average.

    Many traders, wholesale and retail, besides workers at the Koyambedu market hail from different parts of the State.

    With retail outlets in the market being closed last week, most of them have returned to their homes in Villupuram, Thiruvallur, Chengalpattu, Ariyalur, Cuddalore, Perambalur, and other districts.

    These traders and workers have, in turn, tested positive for Coronavirus back home.

    This is the main reason why interior districts such as Villupuram and Cuddalore have reported abnormally high positive cases over the last couple of days.

    Yesterday, Nilgiris district, the first in the state to control Coronavirus spread, reported four new Covid-19 cases — all truck drivers who had returned from Koyambedu.

    Nerkundram, a locality that is 1.5 km from Koyambedu where many Koyambedu traders reside, has become a cluster due to the main vegetable and fruits market.

    It has reported 100 Covid-19 positive cases since last week.

    Localities near the Koyambedu market such as Anna Nagar, Ambattur and Kodambakkam are reporting huge numbers over the last few days, giving rise to fears that they could soon turn into Covid-19 clusters.

    These apart, Chennai has three more clusters. One is the Pulianthope one where the prayer house meeting was held, the second is Ice House that falls under Teynampet limits and the third, Royapuram where nearly 50 staff of a television news channel tested Covid-19-positive.

    The Ice House cluster cases are traced to the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Women and Children.

    A pregnant woman died while delivering a child that too died.

    Both were found Covid-19 positive later.

    But without knowing this, over half a dozen staff of the hospital had come in contact with the woman.

    As some of these staff reside in the nearby Ice House area, it has now turned a cluster with at least 45 cases reported from V R Pillai street in the area.

    While Koyambedu has emerged as a sort of super-spreader leaving over 750 people infected with the pandemic virus, there are a couple of other things that are responsible for Tamil Nadu’s current situation, including turning the market a Covid-19 hotspot.

    One is that most of the frontline health workers were not provided personal protection equipment (PPE) until last week.

    This is why many workers have become Covid-19 positive.

    The second was the State Government announcing a total lockdown from 26-29 April in Chennai, Coimbatore, Salem, Madurai and Tiruppur.

    The announcement was made on 24 April, resulting in people crowing shops and markets on 25 April morning.

    This left people exposed to getting infected and are believed to have been affected.

    While volunteers who delivered essential goods in containment zones were not thoroughly screened, lack of information on Coronavirus cases in neighbourhoods have also compounded the problems for Tamil Nadu and Chennai.

    Health experts blame administrative lapses on the part of Tamil Nadu for the situation aggravating.

    Yesterday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, in his address to the people of the State, said Coronavirus was spreading rapidly in Chennai because of its narrow streets, more number of people per sq km, houses constructed too close to one another, and congestion.

    Experts wonder if the State Government has realised this only now.

    “This has been the situation for long in Royapuram, TVK Nagar, Tondiarpet, Teynampet, Kodambakkam and parts of Anna Nagar wards which have reported high numbers. Why didn’t the government act earlier, especially with regard to the Koyambedu market?” the experts ask.

    Even Pulianthope emerging a cluster was because the health workers were not given PPEs, they point out.

    The State government is drawing flak particularly for being lax in imposing the lockdown at Koyambedu.

    The main vegetable and fruits market is visited by people across the state, while thousands from within the city throng to buy vegetables or fruits or flowers every day.

    The government authorities had been asking the traders to shift the market to suburban parts of the city but they had resisted the attempts until the situation went out of control last week.

    On 4 May, the Greater Chennai Corporation authorities decided to shift the market temporarily to suburban Thirumazhisai even as part of the traders shifted to Madhavaram, another suburban area, last week.

    “Everyone knows how traders move very closely here and how buyers have little room to move around. Why did this go unnoticed until last week,” asked an expert, not wishing to identify.

    Koyambedu vendors justified the functioning of the market during the country-wide lockdown, saying it would lead to a severe shortage of vegetables and fruits in the State capital.

    But experts argue why the vendors or traders refused to move to open spaces from the closed and sultry confines of the market.

    Chennai police had urged the vendors to shift to the nearby bus terminal in vain.

    People who visited the Koyambedu market during the lockdown returned with horror stories of how the crowd there was unmanageable in the mornings and how social distancing was being ignored.

    The first positive move from the State authorities came during mid-April when police said no person would be allowed to enter the market after 7.30 am.

    But the decision drew more criticism.

    “Almost all trade gets over by 7.30 am. What’s the purpose of such an order?” asked Arun Kumar, a resident of Anna Nagar.

    Chennai police began putting pressure on the vendors only after the two truck drivers tested positive and the next day, the flower vendor tested positive besides a person who ran a saloon there.

    Health experts say that the Greater Chennai Corporation should have imposed a total lockdown at the market.

    Vendors could have been allotted open spaces elsewhere — the way they have been provided now.

    The State government has now appointed State Commissioner for Revenue Administration Dr J Radhakrishnan as a special nodal officer to tackle the problem in Chennai.

    Radhakrishnan told the media that the numbers are likely to rise in Chennai as more testing is being done but there is no cause for concern since the Government would tackle the problem.

    Of the total coronavirus cases reported in the State, 35 per cent have recovered. This is an encouraging trend for the authorities, who also point out that the death percentage (0.8 per cent) is one of the lowest in the country.

    M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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