Chennai police worked overtime at the weekend after the Indian city imposed an “intensified lockdown” from last Friday to the end of this month to deal with the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
Only pharmacies and hospitals can operate, while offices, shops, markets, restaurants and even petrol stations have been closed. Residents are banned from driving but may walk to nearby stores that open briefly in the morning.
Tamil Nadu state, of which Chennai is the capital, has seen the third-highest number of Covid-19 positive cases in India, following Maharashtra state and Delhi. The 59,377 infections recorded in the southern state as of yesterday means it has almost as many cases as Delhi. Over 750 people have died in the state, with Chennai accounting for almost 70 per cent of its infection cases.
So even as the rest of India started easing curbs, Tamil Nadu announced a second, stricter lockdown for Chennai and the neighbouring Chengalpet, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts.
The announcement of the new lockdown on June 15 prompted thousands of Chennai residents to drive to other districts. The rush saw long lines at highway check-posts and toll plazas until the wee hours of last Friday morning.
“We don’t want to risk catching the coronavirus in Chennai. And we are sick of lockdown after lockdown. It doesn’t seem to have shown any benefits,” said Mr Naveen J. Antony, an accountant who drove out of Chennai last Wednesday with his family. They plan to stay in Coimbatore until the lockdown ends.
Chennai Police Commissioner A.K. Vishwanathan told a local paper: “We only allowed those with electronic travel passes to go through. We seized other vehicles or fined drivers. Most are staying home now.”
Other regions are now wary of travellers from Chennai.
Dr J. Nirmalson, deputy director for health services in neighbouring Salem district, said that of its 47 cases recorded on Sunday, six were Chennai returnees and four were from other states.
Chennai had 369 containment zones a week ago but now has 64, while cases have exploded in suburbs like Tambaram and Pallavaram, which are entry points to the city. The two suburbs are technically in the adjacent Chengalpet district, now also under lockdown.
Sunday saw a total lockdown in Chennai and people stayed indoors, but Tamil Nadu state still recorded the highest single-day spike with 2,532 new cases.
Health experts said Tamil Nadu, known for its impressive health indicators, is struggling with the pandemic because it has adopted a law-and-order approach using bans and fines rather than a more people-friendly public health policy.
Resident welfare associations have complained that the door-to-door disease surveillance was inadequate and testing was erratic. “I see more policemen out there than health workers,” said Ms Kavitha P., a resident of the Adyar neighbourhood.
A Health Department report this month which found that hospitals failed to report 236 deaths has also eroded public trust. With these deaths, Tamil Nadu’s fatality rate was 1.5 per cent, compared with the 0.7 per cent reported by officials.
Tamil Nadu is testing 11,158 people per million, among the top 10 highest testing states. It has 83 testing centres, the most in India.
However, virologist Jacob John said the state was conducting more tests in areas with fewer cases. “If more people with symptoms and in hot spots are tested, more Covid-19 cases will be diagnosed,” he said.
But a frustrated police official has blamed people for flouting social distancing rules, saying: “No one wears masks properly! Fifty of the 53 who died on Sunday had comorbidities. At least the elderly should be careful.”
State Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami on Sunday launched a 300-bed institutional quarantine facility at a private college in Chennai. Calling the lockdown “a speed breaker”, he said: “God only knows when the pandemic will end.”