Kerala, which seemed to be on track to more or less eliminate Coronavirus 2019 by mid-May, could be seeing the beginnings of a ‘third wave’ of COVID-19 infections, starting with districts that share a border with other states.
The worst affected in the new wave seem to be Palakkad and Idukki districts, both of which share a border with Tamil Nadu.
The local administration in Idukki sounded an alarm today morning, after 3 out of 45 samples sent for testing on Sunday returned positive as of Monday night.
“These were from a sample of around 350 that were sent. Given that around 300 more results are yet to come, the number will almost certainly go up further,” H Dineshan said after a meeting with power minister MM Mani, who is a prominent leader from the hill district.
Dineshan said the samples sent on Sunday comprised ‘high risk’ cases who interacted closely with positive cases.
Out of the 127 COVID-19 patients in the state, Idukki already accounts for around 15.
The three who were confirmed to have the virus last night include a ward councillor who had visited the house of an infected person.
She has, in all, visited around 60 houses, according to media reports. Another was a health worker at a hospital, while the third was a Bangalore-returned employee.
Idukki district used to be part of Tamil Nadu at the time of independence, but was merged with Kerala subsequently.
There are a few lakhs of people in the district who trace their roots to Tamil Nadu and have most of their extended family on the other side of the border, said MM Mani.
“As such, there is always a certain level of transit between Idukki and Tamil Nadu,” he said. “However, the traditional bond that we have with Tamil Nadu cannot be allowed to come in the way of putting in place the restrictions required to prevent the spread of this disease,” he said.
In border villages of Idukki, the administration has formed committees of local people to ensure that anyone who is coming from across the border is reported to health authorities.
Palakkad, another district that sees a high-level of inter-state traffic with Tamil Nadu, has also reported a spike in new cases in recent days.
An estimated 5,000 people enter Kerala via Palakkad even during the lock-down, as part of the 1,500 or so trucks that come in carrying essential goods such as vegetables from other states.
Most of the new cases being reported in the district are those who come in contact with the truck-drivers or the goods transported — such as loading and unloading workers and traders at vegetable markets.
Traders and unloading workers across the state have been asked to take special precautions to avoid contracting the virus.
The new cases have set off fears of a ‘third wave’ of COVID-19 infections in the state.
The first wave was seen in January, when three students returning to Kerala from Wuhan in China tested positive.
This was followed by a second wave in early March, when returning non-resident Keralites from Europe and the Middle East spread the disease among the local population.
However, with the stoppage of international flights on March 22 and the imposition of a lockdown two days later, Kerala was able to bring down total active COVID-19 cases in the state from around 260 in early April to 114 on April 20.
However, the number has remained in the 115-125 range since then, as new cases are now being reported from inter-state travelers, as opposed to international travelers in the first two phases.
Around 1 in 15 Malayali is either settled or works abroad. An estimated 20 lakh Keralites work outside India, mostly in the Gulf countries, while a few lakhs have settled or work in other states of India.
Despite the risk of a ‘third wave’, the Left Front government led by Pinarayi Vijayan has urged the central government to bring Keralites stuck in other parts of the world back to their home state.
Priority should be given to those who are stuck after going to these places for short visits, such as for vacation, job interviews, visiting relatives, business trips and so on, rather than those who are settled there, he has urged.
Vijayan said the state government has enough facilities to keep up to 2 lakh people under quarantine at the same time.
The state government’s Non-Resident Keralites’ Department started online registration for those who wished to return home on Monday.
Within 24 hours, an estimated 2 lakh people had already signed up on the portal.
The government has already announced that those who come from outside the state or the country will be kept under quarantine in a government-controlled facility before being allowed to go to their homes.