Tamil Nadu lawmaker dies from Covid-19 on his birthday as disease spreads at 'lightning speed' in the state

Local reports indicate Mr Anbazhagan was infected by the coronavirus while distributing relief materials in Chennai. PHOTO: J. ANBAZHAGAN/FACEBOOK

BANGALORE - Tamil Nadu politician J. Anbazhagan died from Covid-19 on his 62nd birthday on Wednesday (June 10), after a week on ventilator support. The state leader is the first Indian lawmaker to succumb to the disease.

He was admitted to the Dr Rela Institute and Medical Centre in Chennai, the state's capital, on June 2 after testing positive for Covid-19. Within a few days, his cardiac function dropped and his critical condition was made worse by a chronic kidney disease.

Local reports indicate Mr Anbazhagan, a popular leader from the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, was infected by the coronavirus while distributing relief materials in Chennai, which accounts for more than half of the confirmed cases in the state.

His death comes as the state records the third-highest number of Covid-19 cases in India.

Tamil Nadu has almost 35,000 cases, with Tuesday seeing a record 1,685 cases. More than 300 people have died.

Its Directorate of Health, however, found on Wednesday that hospitals did not report 236 Covid-19 deaths. When added, the state's fatality rate would be 1.5 per cent compared with the 0.7 percent reported by officials.

For a week now, the state has been recording 1,000 to 1,600 cases a day.

This has surprised many experts.

Tamil Nadu has expansive healthcare facilities, a doctor-patient ratio of 4:1000 that is higher than the World Health Organisation's minimum of 1:1000, and a strong public health bureaucracy that pioneered HIV/AIDS control.

Yet, it is overwhelmed by the pandemic.

"A major factor is that Tamil Nadu's contact tracing is not rigorous enough, and testing was not systematic until late May," said Dr T. Sundararaman, a public health expert.

Firefighters spray disinfectant in narrow streets of containment zones, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, on June 4, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Even after the nationwide lockdown and closure of flights, trains and buses, the state tested only cases with travel history and direct contact with Covid-19 patients.

Only since late May did it begin to test people with coronavirus symptoms.

But it still does not test patients suspected of having died from the disease. This leads to a misleadingly low death rate and no tracing of the contacts of the deceased.

Chief Minister K Palaniswami said on Monday that 86 per cent of Tamil Nadu's cases have been found to be asymptomatic. Experts say this means the right people are not being tested.

The government blames the rising numbers in Chennai on members of Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat who returned from a large religious event in Delhi, migrant workers returning from the Middle East and shoppers at the Koyambedu vegetable market.

Criticising it, virologist Dr Jacob John said: "The government accused certain groups and just focused on drastic geographical containment and lockdowns. They see the pandemic not as a public health issue but as a law and order issue."

The police said it has charged nearly 570,000 people with lockdown violations in the state so far. Experts said measures such as a 7 pm to 7 am curfew, installing road barriers to prevent vehicle movement and a sudden three-day lockdown that led hoarders to rush to the market, were ineffective.

They asked the government to focus more on changing behaviour through constant education. "Promote 100 per cent mask-wearing. Most deaths have been of people with comorbidities - so reduce mortality by quarantining vulnerable groups," said Dr. John.

The experts also called on the disaster management cell running Tamil Nadu's response to the pandemic to engage more with the state's many public health specialists .

"Involve village councils, health workers and community volunteers for disease surveillance," said Dr Sundararaman.

On Wednesday, health minister C Vijayabaskar noted that Covid-19 cases in the state "are increasing at lightning speed" and asked private hospitals to add more beds and medical workers.

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