Delhi government had faced a lot of flak when the number of COVID-19 cases spiked in the capital in June and early July. Even the Supreme Court had come down heavily on it for its failure to control the spread of the disease. However, things are moving back to normal these days. How did this turnaround happen? Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal gets candid in this exclusive interview with Manorama.
From COVID City to a Model City for COVID treatment- Is Delhi changing? If so how?
Till the end of May, the situation in Delhi was under control. We had anticipated a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases with the opening of the lockdown in Delhi, but the surge was more than expected. Now, two months later, there has been a complete turnaround. We have only around 10,000 active cases - 14th highest in the country from a point where we were second highest. Our recovery rate is 90%, the highest in the country. 80% of our hospital beds are vacant and this week we released hotels that were functioning as COVID Hospital extensions.
This was possible because of three key principles that constitute the Delhi Model. First, and the foundation of Delhi Model, is teamwork. We knew no one individual or government was going to be able to defeat COVID-19. So we went to everyone and asked for their help, be it the Central government, religious organisations, social organisations, and of course the two crore people of Delhi. Everyone came together to fight the pandemic successfully.
The second thing that made the Delhi Model work, was acknowledging constructive criticism and fixing the problems highlighted by others. For example, in early June, we received a lot of complaints about the Lok Nayak Hospital, Delhi government’s largest COVID-19 hospital with 2,000 beds. Rather than clashing with those raising the issues, we fixed all those issues one by one. I want to thank the media for playing a very important role in this.
The third principle is that no matter how bad the situation gets, you as a government cannot give up. Recently, the health minister from Karnataka said: ‘Now only God can save us’. I can understand the anxiety and helplessness of that minister. But as a government, you cannot give up – because if you give up, then you cannot imagine the number of deaths that will lead you to.
Apart from these, there are four specific pillars of the Delhi model. Home isolation has been the strongest pillar of the Delhi Model. We put in place a really good system that gave patients the confidence that they can get better at home if they have mild symptoms, which constituted 90% of the patients. Our doctors call them every day and guide them. We sent Oximeters free of cost to every home isolation patient so they can constantly monitor their vitals and make sure they get help early in case their symptoms get serious. This in turn helped hospitals and doctors to focus on serious patients. Second, we ensured we had more than sufficient beds at any point in time. We created large COVID-19 care centres for moderate patients and increased the number of ICUs and oxygen beds in all our hospitals. At every point of time, through the Delhi Corona app, we ensured that the bed and ICU availability in government and private hospital were available to the people of Delhi. Third, we made testing accessible to everyone, and set up multiple camps all over the city for rapid testing, which helped us detect cases early and isolate the patients. At over 50,000 tests per million, Delhi is testing more than any other state in the country. Fourth, we were the first to initiate trials of convalescent plasma therapy in our hospitals that showed encouraging results. Then we started India's first COVID plasma bank and ran awareness campaign to encourage recovered patients to donate thier plasma.
Things are looking good, but we can’t be complacent now. We are prepared to face any possible surge in future. We are also focusing on reviving the Delhi economy now, which has been badly-hit during the pandemic and ensuring people get back to work.
Is there any assessment or projection before the government regarding COVID curve flattening ? Or at what stage can we say Delhi is COVID -19 free ?
We cannot call Delhi COVID-free until the new infections become zero. Unfortunately this virus is so unpredictable that no one can say when will that happen. But we can surely say that we have been able to flatten the COVID-19 curve to a great extent, both in terms of daily cases and fatalities. Delhi’s recovery rate is now close to 90%. Deaths have reduced from over 120 daily in mid-June to 25-30 per day. We are now focussed on saving every life. We have increased the capacity of our ICU beds 4 times in the last two months, and set up four committees of doctors to study how the number of deaths can be further reduced in the 11 hospitals where the COVID-19 deaths remain on the higher side. I am personally monitoring the status of every single critical patient and deaths due to COVID every day. Once we are able to reduce deaths to zero, then what is the need to fear Corona? It will be like any flu. It will come and go.
At one stage, the Supreme Court criticized the government over handling COVID patients, dead bodies and action against doctors. How did you identify and manage such issues?
We did not react to criticism negatively, we turned every single criticism into an opportunity for improvement. We have seen the health systems of most advanced countries in the world break down in the face of COVID. Delhi, being the national capital, saw the maximum influx of foreign passengers in the country and was therefore at the greatest risk. When the Covid cases in Delhi started surging in early June, therefore, naturally our systems were stretched. Both courts and the media started pointing out our flaws. Citizens too posted their experiences on social media. We acknowledged all faults, noted them down and worked on each one of them step-by-step. I appointed CM representatives to be physically present in each government and private hospital to ensure 24x7 monitoring of all improvement measures. Today, the same courts are praising our efforts. Last week, the Delhi High Court observed that Delhi government has taken adequate steps like increasing the number of ambulances, augmenting the capacity of helplines, ramping up testing facilities and creating plasma banks to handle the COVID-19 cases in Delhi.
There are some who say the situation in Delhi changed only after the intervention of the Centre, especially Home Minister Amit Shah. If the Delhi Govt was not in a position to handle the situation, why was the delay in seeking help from the Centre?
I don’t think this is a time to fight for credit. I have said this before as well - let them take all the credit, the responsibility is all mine. As the chief minister of Delhi, it is my responsibility to take care of the people of my state. We had to seek everybody’s help to fight COVID in Delhi, we sought Centre’s help too. They helped us with oxygen cylinders, ventilators, testing kits etc. This is such an unprecedented pandemic that no one government can fight it alone - we need to work together with others. I sought everybody’s help to deal with the COVID situation in Delhi - Central government, private hospitals, hotels, resident welfare associations, NGOs and religious organisations, and they all responded positively. We thank everybody and we are not interested in any fight for credit.
Even after the government fixed the private hospital rates, some patients and civil society groups allege lack of enforcement in price capping. What action are you planning to take?
We treaded carefully after studying the models of capping in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, etc. and saw what worked or did not work. There are some instances of gross violations that have been reported and we are taking action against them, but largely now the system has stabilised.
There is no mechanism to address patient's complaints. There is no single body or authority to whom people can send complaints related to COVID. Is there any proactive step to audit private hospitals?
In fact, to the contrary, Delhi has one of the most decentralised and responsive grievance management systems. In March itself, we appointed CM Representatives in all government hospitals and quarantine centres. In June, when we suspected some private hospitals were not admitting patients and resorting to black marketing of beds, we appointed Delhi government representatives in all these hospitals to ensure there is compliance of all government directives. But by far the biggest step taken by us on ensuring accountability was the Delhi Corona App. It is something no other government has done. We realised that the lack of transparency in beds availability was causing problems. We made the whole system transparent and worked with hospitals to provide real time information. Today the app has satisfied everyone’s need for correct information and no hospital can lie to patients about bed, ICU or ventilator availability.
Home isolation was a turning point in Delhi's high recovery rate, how did you implement it properly and monitored home isolation strictly? What was the lesson you learned from the field? Do you think a confrontation could have been avoided with Lieutenant Governor (LG)?
Home isolation was the cornerstone of Delhi’s COVID turnaround. We studied what was going wrong in Italy, Spain, New York, etc. There they would take every COVID patient, whether mild or severe to hospitals and quarantine facilities. So when patients that actually needed critical care reached hospitals there was no space for them and they died on the streets. Delhi’s home isolation model is actually an example for the whole world. With public awareness campaigns, we instilled confidence amongst people that they can recover without getting admitted into hospitals. More than 90% of Corona positive patients either have no symptoms at all or show mild symptoms like mild fever or cough. Such patients do not need to get admitted into the hospital. They can stay home and look after themselves. We made guidelines to explain to patients what to do during home isolation and what precautions to take. Every day our team of doctors calls patients to ensure they are doing fine. We also provided pulse oximeters to every single patient recovering under home isolation free of cost. The biggest problem faced by a Corona patient is sudden drop in oxygen levels, also called Happy Hypoxia. If the oxygen level of a patient falls to 90, it is considered serious, and if it falls below 85, it is considered very serious. If your oxygen levels fall to 85-90, you will experience trouble breathing. It was observed that some COVID patients had no symptoms at all, but their oxygen levels stooped drastically and before they could be taken to hospital, they succumbed to the disease. Keeping this in view, we had implemented a system where all the people who are recovering in home isolation, self-monitor themselves through Oximeters.
As for the disagreement with LG, I would not call it a confrontation. The Central government and LG had apprehensions about our model of home isolation, but I think we managed to convince them. They first tried to stop it, but when the media, people of Delhi and the elected government spoke up in one voice against the decision, they had to reverse their decision. That’s the beauty of our democratic system.
Delhi had faced an extreme peak of COVID at one stage, now it is slowly coming back on track. But people are now complacent. Are we moving in the right direction?
In all my press briefings, I always stress that there is no room for complacency. We cannot afford to let our guard down. Experiences from the Spanish flu a hundred years ago shows us that there were three waves, and the second one in fact was even more dangerous. Many countries and Indian states like Kerala are experiencing second waves. Social distancing, masks and washing of hands must continue until we have a vaccine against Coronavirus.
You have a good rapport with Kerala government and especially with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. How Kerala's initial lessons helped in Delhi's COVID management?
We learnt from everyone in our fight against COVID-19. Kerala had the advantage of successfully battling epidemics in the past, and has a very effective decentralized mechanism for contact tracing and isolating patients. It is a matter of pride for the entire nation that United Nations recently honoured Kerala Health Minister K K Shailaja Teacher for her efforts to fight COVID. We also saw and learnt from the containment strategy of Dharavi and similarly from several other countries around the world.
Delhi is one of the states which supported reopening of schools in August. What makes you think it is safe? Still parents are reluctant to send their children. What are the arrangements made?
We have not taken a decision on this yet. We are approaching this with caution. For now, our teachers and the education department are adapting to meet the demands of online education. We are also distributing free tablets to all Class 9 students of a few government schools on a pilot basis to ensure all students have access to online classes. Delhi’s government schools have transformed in the last five years. Working closely with teachers and principals, we have overcome many challenges in the past and I am sure we will overcome this challenge too.
COVID period proved that the concept of NCR is a total failure. UP and Haryana closed their borders and did not allow vehicles to move freely. Was it not the duty of Delhi, UP and Haryana Govts to plan uniform policies for the entire NCR region?
I agree that closing of borders did not achieve much. We urged both UP and Haryana governments and the Centre to ensure borders are opened up after the country started unlocking. Centre and the MHA had the authority to intervene to protect the NCR concept, but they did not. And at the end of the day, even after shutting their borders, today you see cases rising in Haryana and UP, and decreasing in Delhi. But we have always kept our borders open and will do so in future too.
There is complaint from many hospitals about shortage of PPE kits, HN masks and treatment facility for health workers and medicos. There was also a shortage of Oxygen cylinders. Are you addressing these issues ?
We faced some shortage of these resources only a few days in early June. That was the time when we faced a sudden surge in COVID cases. But thanks to collective effort, the issues got resolved quickly. We ramped our procurement for all these items, Centre also responded to our request and supplied us PPE kits, ventilators and oxygen cylinders, and we also received donations from many charitable organisations. Right now we are sufficiently stocked for the future.
Has the government made any assessment on migrant workers in Delhi? How many of them left the state? Any assessment of school dropout of kids of migrants workers ?
Migrant workers are the backbone of Delhi’s economy. Due to the imposition of a sudden lockdown, many of them were stuck with no food and shelter in Delhi. At that time, we responded with speed and setup over 1100 hunger relief centers that were, at their peak, feeding 10 lakh people two meals a day. We also setup over 500 night shelters in the city. After the Central government allowed travel of migrant workers through special trains, we arranged to pay the cost of all the migrant workers to travel to their home states. Over 4 lakh migrant workers travelled through these special trains, but I am sure many also travelled directly by themselves too. But now the things are looking opposite. Because the COVID situation in Delhi has stabilized and the economy is opening up, we are seeing a large influx of these migrant workers back in Delhi. Since the new academic year is starting only now, we will make extra efforts to ensure their kids face no problem enrolling in schools.
Migrant labourers have already started coming back to Delhi. How do you plan to help, rehabilitate and facilitate them?
Their biggest need at this time is jobs. At the same time, many businesses who have started opening up in Delhi are complaining that they are facing difficulty in finding labour. To facilitate both employers and workers impacted by lockdown, we have launched a jobs portal called 'Rozgar Bazaar' at jobs.delhi.gov.in where both employers and job-seekers can register through smartphone and find each other. The response was overwhelming. In just one week, 15,901 companies have notified 5,43,553 job vacancies while 6,11,133 job-seekers have registered.
The economic situation is one of the worst troubling scenarios. What are your plans to tide over the crisis? How far it affects revenue of your government?
Reviving Delhi’s economy, while keeping COVID-19 under check, is our biggest priority now. I think two factors are going to be most important. First, people will need to remove the fear of COVID from their minds. Only then can businesses start opening up and consumers will start spending. We are beginning to see this happen in Delhi, since the COVID situation in Delhi has substantially improved. Second, governments need to avoid imposing arbitrary lockdowns. I am seeing many states imposing two day or five day lockdowns. They are not going to help, they will only hurt the economy further. Delhi is the best example of how we managed to control the spread of COVID due to sound management, and without resorting to lockdowns.
We have been taking many decisions to further help revive Delhi’s economy. In the last week alone, we launched the Rozgar Bazaar jobs portal, reduced the VAT on Diesel by Rs 8.38 per litre, allowed street vendors to start operating and de-linked hotels that functioned as COVID hospitals so that they can start functioning normally. I am holding regular meetings with traders, industrial associations, and businesses and listening to their suggestions so that together we can get Delhi’s economy back on track, just like the entire city came together to deal with Corona.
Even though there are government rules regarding salary payments, sacking of workers etc, complaints are still arising on losing jobs even from the health sector. Are there any plans to counter this?
This is a tough time for everyone, for workers and employers. Many businesses have wound up and as a society, we will need to find solutions to deal with the crisis. We haven’t heard of any major complaints of violations of any government rules in Delhi, but if anything is reported to us, we will take strict action.
Delhi population has a good number of South Indians, which includes government officials, health workers , businessmen, students and many more. But due to the COVID-19 situation many people have decided to go back to their native places. How is Delhi government dealing with this situation? Is there any plan to attract them back to the city?
South Indians make a sizeable part of Delhi’s population and have made immense contribution in making Delhi what it is. Through your portal, I wish to assure all those who went back to their home towns that Delhi is getting back to normal. Things are much better and we are fully prepared to face any future surge in COVID. The economy is opening up and we welcome all of them back to the city.
There are lot of doubts still pending about COVID testing. Lot of debate is going on about accuracy of Antigen test. What's your govt's view on this ?
In early June, when it was clear that Delhi needed to ramp up its testing, we requested the centre to provide more testing facilities. People wanted to get tested but were not able to. The Central government introduced rapid antigen testing for the first time in mid-June, and on our request, Delhi was the first state to get rapid antigen kits. As a result, from a capacity of around 10,000 tests per day, Delhi is today testing at around 22,000 samples per day. We follow all ICMR guidelines with regards to antigen testing, and ensure that symptomatic patients that test negative on antigen tests get tested again through RT-PCR tests. Both tests have their pros and cons. Rapid testing kits are quick and affordable and has allowed us to ensure testing is made available in every lane and neighbourhood of Delhi - free of cost. Health experts have also credited the rapid antigen testing for reducing the burden on health infrastructure, quickly identifying the cases, and reducing the spread of infections.
Home quarantine rule for domestic travellers is not that much strict in Delhi compared to other state. Is there any plan to tighten the rules to avoid a second spread?
All domestic travellers to Delhi are required to be under Home Isolation for 7 days. As I said earlier also, closing borders or forcibly quarantining domestic travellers are not going to help much. What is more important is to educate and seek people’s collaboration in observing rules such as social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands.
Data shows that 25% of the total COVID patients are from isolated palaces and the contact tracing is a bit difficult. Do you think it will affect the COVID control activities?
Our experience of the last two months has shown this is not impossible. With a dedicated team of health officials at local level, we have been able to meet this challenge. Our biggest challenge at this stage is to ensure people don’t get complacent and continue to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID.
There is a huge political vacuum at the National level. Will Aam Aadmi Party take the initiative to create a credible secular alternative ?
Yes, there is a huge political vacuum. At a time when China is troubling us at the border and COVID has spread across the country, the top two national parties are fighting in Rajasthan. Who will protect the country from China and coronavirus? I am more bothered about the country. At this time, the central government and BJP should have taken the entire country together to fight coronavirus and deal with China. Instead, they are doing dirty politics and horse-trading of MLAs. Efforts for toppling the government are going on. This is wrong. The main Opposition party, Congress, is dead, and there seems to be no alternative to BJP. People are happy with neither the BJP, nor Congress. In many states, voting for one is as good as voting for the other since MLAs are being bought and sold. The voters feel completely cheated. In such a scenario, an alternative will definitely emerge in the country. Only time will tell what that alternative would be.
It will be presumptuous on my part to say that AAP will fill that gap at the national level. Our organization is very small. But people all over the country definitely respect AAP and love it. We have shown that you can win with honest funding and on the track record of governance. Due to the work done in health, education, electricity, water and now COVID management, people have hope in AAP and want it to rise up to that role. Only time will tell if AAP will be able to fill that vacuum.
What are the future plans of Aam Aadmi Party. In states like Kerala the party is a non -starter. Do you have plans of expansion?
We are a young party and it takes time to expand all over India. We have formed the government thrice in Delhi and are the main opposition in Punjab. No other party has managed to do that in such a short span of time. We want to take our form of politics and governance to all parts of India, so we will definitely expand into other states when the time is right.
There is a considerable number of Malayalee population in Delhi. There are four Kerala Schools, two Malayalam News Papers published from Delhi. What is your message and your government’s plans for the Malayalee community?
Malayalis in Delhi play a very vital role and we really value their contribution. Their spirit of entrepreneurship is a gift to every city they go to. The rich Malayali culture adds to the vibrancy of Delhi. In fact, not only Delhi but the entire country has benefited immensely from the contribution of Malayali health workers who have been at the forefront of fighting Corona. Our government has recently decided to set up a Malayalam Academy under the Arts, Culture and Language department to promote Malayalam language and culture in the city. We will seek the suggestions of the local Malayali community and work with them on how the government can further help promote the language and culture and make sure the entire Malayali community thrives in Delhi.