Coronavirus Warriors: Containing Covid-19 in Kurla where population density is 50 times Wuhan’s

Tabassum Barnagarwala
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Dr Vikas Singh is the medical surveillance officer of Kurla ward. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

With the threat of Coronavirus, Medical surveillance officer Dr Vikas Singh has no dearth of reasons to worry these days. In particular, he is worried about the population density and how it may exacerbate the threat of Covid-19 spreading fast. Singh mans a central ward in Mumbai, called Kurla, which has double the city’s density — 58,438 people per sq km. That is 50 times the population density of Wuhan (China) where Coronavirus originated. “We have to prevent community transmission here anyhow” Singh says. “If I could I would shut everything”.

Already a positive Covid-19 case has been recorded in adjoining wards. It is a matter of days before Kurla, or the L ward, records one. Kurla has 80 per cent slums, the remaining 20 per cent are affluent residents who reside close to the plush corporate area — the Bandra Kurla Complex. Once he covers all residential pockets, he will start the laborious task of sensitising slum dwellers where the awareness drives are yet to start.

Every morning Singh checks the status of people under home quarantine. There are 50 international passengers in his ward. His team of 300 staffers across 16 health make daily calls to them. Once he confirms none have developed any symptoms, he plans awareness drives in housing societies, then makes daily calls to hospitals and local physicians to check for any spike in respiratory illness. This is to ensure the virus is not silently spreading in the community. On March 15, more than 500 societies were visited to counsel people about symptoms, to check if anyone had breathlessness, share posters on dos and don'ts, on myths, and residents were urged to report if anyone did not follow home quarantine rules.

Singh’s wife is a medical officer in another ward. With elderly parents (the most at-risk age group) at home, Singh carries a can of pink coloured liquid soap to keep washing his hands. “I don’t need to now, but soon I may have to maintain distance to keep them safe,” he says.

It was January 8 when the first call came. An Indian had returned to Kurla from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. “I immediately sent my officer, we requested him to remain at home for 28 days. Back then the guidelines mandated a 28-day quarantine. For a month we called him daily to check for symptoms,” Singh says. In January the preparation was within the public health department, sharing information on Covid-19, training health workers, stocking up on protective gears. By February, posters were pasted in societies, every day a tempo with a medical officer on microphone would roam announcing the symptoms and precautions. Singh himself goes for many such drives.

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“Once a resident called to complain that a Dubai return was roaming freely in society. I immediately rushed to the society. We counselled the man on the threat he posed to his own family. I realised if we counsel well, people do listen,” he said. On another occasion, he went to a corporate office to just teach the way to properly wash hands to white-collar workers. The employees had just one concern, N-95 masks are out of stock, and Singh gently convinced them to use handkerchieves instead. He and his staff have masks as their only protection. “We wear gloves when needed,” he says.

The most difficult task, he says, is when a positive case comes up. “Out of 9.28 lakh population, 80 per cent here are slum dwellers. We have not even started sensitising them. We will have to trace each close contact to ensure the virus does not spread in slums,” he says. For that he has a plan — take minute-by-minute detail from a positive case to track each movement, retrace steps, and disinfect everything that came in the patient’s way. “Cluster containment is easier said than done,” he says.

“Our doctors are visiting each international traveller to stamp on their fist. Such people can be identified if they step out, but what a waste of resource. If these people self-quarantine, our job gets easier,” he says.

Health officials like him are also counselling people against social discrimination. Whenever he visits a society, he encourages people to bring grocery, help residents who are under home quarantine while ensuring minimal contact. “People need to help, not boycott each other during these times,” he looks agitated. Even during the H1N1 outbreak, there was panic, but the panic this time has led to rumours, consuming hours of civic staff’s time in discrediting them.

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