SC rebuke and rising TPR force Kerala govt to continue with lockdown restrictions

COVID-19 lockdown
A nearly deserted textile shop in Thrissur Post Office Road on Sunday as the lockdown regulations and heavy rain mostly kept people off the streets. Photo: Russel Shahul

Kerala Government's plan to announce further lockdown relaxations has been thwarted by the Supreme Court's harsh remarks against the three-day Bakrid relaxations offered by the government and also the adamantly high the positivity rate, which has now shown signs of ascending.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in a statement later in the day that the restrictions would continue as the average test positive rate was still above 10 percent.
"There will be no relaxations in the curbs as of now,” Vijayan was quoted in a press release.

“The current restrictions will continue for one more week. The average Test Positivity Rate of the last three days has increased to 10.8 percent. The TPR is high in Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kasaragod districts. The district administrations should effectively interfere to control the TPR.”

On Tuesday, the TPR was close to 12 percent, 11.91 percent, and the number of cases was 16,848. There were 104 deaths, too. In eight districts, there are more than 1000 cases on Tuesday. For the moment, it has been decided to extend the lockdown and other restrictions for a week more.

Just when more exemptions looked imminent, the apex court questioned the LDF government's commitment to fight the pandemic saying that it had bowed before pressure groups. "To give in to pressure groups so that the citizenry of India is then laid bare to a nationwide pandemic discloses a sorry state of affairs", a two-Judge bench of Justice R F Nariman and B R Gavai said. The Bench was highly critical of relaxations granted to even D category local bodies where the test positivity rate is above 15 percent. "It was uncalled for," the Court said.

This clearly rules out any easing of restrictions in at least Category D areas; nearly 20 percent of the local bodies in Kerala (205 of 1034 local bodies) are in the D category.

The Court warned the Kerala Government of strong action if things go out of hand as a consequence of Bakrid relaxations. "We may also indicate that if as a result of these policies, any untoward spread of COVID disease takes place, any member of the public may bring this to the notice of this court, after which this court may take appropriate action", the bench said.

It was the 'livelihood' argument, which has driven the Kerala government to think in terms of easing restrictions, that has now been trashed by the Supreme Court. "The traders were expecting that the Bakrid sales would alleviate their misery to a certain extent. They have stocked up the goods for this purpose much early. The organization of traders started to agitate against the stringent curbs implemented in the LSGIs and declared that they will open shops all over the state flouting the regulations", the Kerala Government had said in an affidavit filed before the apex court.

The Court found this line of reasoning highly unconvincing. "We may only indicate that this affidavit discloses a sorry state of affairs and does not in any real manner safeguard the right to life and health guaranteed to all citizens of India", the bench observed.

The Court was also suspicious of the assurances given by the Kerala government. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said that "as far as possible" only those who had taken at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine should visit shops. "Homilies like 'as far as possible' do not inspire confidence in the people of India or this court," the bench said.

However, a top source in the Health Department said that the government would find a middle way. "There could be relaxations like the scrapping of weekend lockdown in areas with low and medium spread (Category A and B local bodies) and more tightening in areas with high and critical spread (C and D categories where the TPR is above 10 percent)," the official said. However, the Kerala Government has decided to continue with the existing restrictions.

Even next week, the restrictions would only be removed in a phased manner. After a week, depending on the TPR, there is a possibility of all kinds of shops opening on all days in A and B areas but not in others. Weekend restrictions, too, could go in A and B areas, in 467 local bodies. This will still leave more than half of Kerala, 567 of 1034 local bodies or 55 percent of local bodies in Kerala, under strict lockdown.

Malappuram (33), Palakkad (32) and Kozhikode (30) have the highest number of D category local bodies, followed by Ernakulam (22).

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