Thackeray’s air of hope

Radheshyam Jadhav | Updated on April 17, 2020

Clean act: He set up a team of experienced government officials at the Mantralaya, which is functioning at just five per cent of its total capacity in a bid to prevent gatherings and the virus from spreading.

Bracing the storm: The spread of the novel coronavirus is the first major challenge before Uddhav Thackeray, who took over as the CM of Maharashtra last November   -  VIVEK BENDRE

All eyes are on Uddhav Thackeray as he kicks off a slew of measures to stem the spread of Covid-19 in Maharashtra

The staff of Pune’s Naidu Infectious Disease Hospital clapped and cheered as Rajesh and Ratna (names changed) stepped out of the hospital. When the couple reached their apartment, neighbours lined up to welcome them back home.

The two were the first Covid-19 positive cases in Maharashtra. After a 14-day isolation period, and when their new tests late last month showed no infection, they felt as if they had started life anew.

“All these days I kept telling myself that this too would pass and I would have to fight it out,” Rajesh tells BLink. “Hope is important.”

These are not his words, though. He is echoing Maharashtra chief minister (CM) Uddhav Thackeray, who, along with his state administration, has been seeking to instil confidence among the people ever since the first case was detected in the state on March 10.

Keeping people’s spirits up is perhaps the first step in the long-drawn battle against the deadly virus, especially in the worst affected state in the country. As Covid-19 patients multiplied, Thackeray kept assuring people that there was no cause for worry, and the state would ensure that everything was in place.

The spread of the novel coronavirus came as the first major challenge before Thackeray after he took over as the CM in November last year. Many wondered how Thackeray, with no administrative experience, would handle the crisis. It was widely believed that he would simply let his deputy, Ajit Pawar, and other senior ministers deal with it.

Surprisingly, the CM, in his characteristically silent way, has been taking one concrete step after another, without creating a fuss. He set up a team of experienced government officials at the Mantralaya, which is functioning at just five per cent of its total capacity in a bid to prevent gatherings and the virus from spreading.

Thackeray, along with state health minister Rajesh Tope, streamlined the health system to ensure that suspected cases were detected and quarantined. He continues to hold meetings with various departments and has also opened communication channels with the Central government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Once ridiculed for his lacklustre public speeches, Thackeray is winning praise for his down-to-earth demeanour and simple yet convincing speaking style. He has also used social media platforms to hold dialogues with, and respond to the people.

The Maharashtra government also announced and implemented a lockdown before the Centre did. The district administrations were asked to prepare isolation wards and, step by step, the government imposed restrictions on people’s movements. The chief minister started with requests and then warned the people that public transport would be stopped if they did not stay home. Because the impositions came in phases, there was no panic reaction. The government has also been ensuring the supply of essential goods during the lockdown. The police were given the right to take action on people stepping out without good reason.

The state health department has ramped up the number of tests being conducted. Hotspots in Mumbai and other localities have been completely sealed.

The government has set up a task force of specialist doctors to suggest measures to minimise the death rate and for the clinical management and treatment of critically ill Covid-19 patients in designated hospitals. According to the government, 4,573 relief camps have been set up for 5,60,450 migrant workers and food reaches 7,36,939 migrant labourers and homeless people.

Manpower in the healthcare sector is being beefed up, too. Thackeray has sought the help of retired military personnel who had served in the medical corps, retired nurses and ward boys, and those who have completed their training as nurses and ward boys but have not been placed in hospitals yet.

However, the state machinery is falling short when it comes to providing relief to the rural poor. The crumbling public distribution system in Maharashtra poses a major challenge to the administration’s attempt to distribute food grains. The state had announced that agriculture work could continue but there are complaints that the police are not allowing villagers to farm. Farmers have also been left in the lurch with the closure of the Agriculture Produce Market Committees, which help fetch them fair prices. Many farmers who are unable to sell their crops are dumping them. The Bharatiya Janata Party has criticised Thackeray’s handling of the crisis, demanding he take strong steps.

A controversy broke out on April 14, when migrant workers gathered outside the Bandra railway station in Mumbai, hoping to leave for their hometowns after the PM announced the extension of the nationwide lockdown till May 3. Police caned the workers, triggering an outcry. The restlessness among migrant labourers and poor daily wagers in the state is a major source of worry. The demand to restart industrial operations is turning into a chorus.

If there is one positive outcome of the crisis, it is the way the state has handled a potential communal rift. After members of the Tablighi Jamaat returned to the state after participating in a large congregation in Delhi, the Covid-19 crisis took on a communal hue, as some in the meeting had tested positive. Thackeray, however, announced stringent action against those trying to create fissures in the name of caste and religion. “Any nation, any caste or religion … there is one virus and its ill-effects are one,” he said.

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Published on April 17, 2020
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