Among the districts in Tamil Nadu, Chennai tops the list of COVID-19 infections with over 5,000 positive cases. Next to Chennai is Tiruvallur district — not only in the map, but also in the chart. Currently, the district has 492 cases with 25 persons testing positive on May 13. But Tiruvallur had less than one-third of the current number of cases a few days ago.
On May 6, the district had only 129 positive cases. Despite the administration taking various measures like the distribution of relief materials and the production of low-cost disinfectants using solar power, it witnessed a spike last week. As many as 24 containment zones have been formed in the red-zone district.
But not only Tiruvallur, districts like Cuddalore and Ariyalur too saw a steep rise in the number of cases recently. This was attributed to the persons who had returned from Chennai’s Koyambedu market that has now been closed after witnessing a large number of cases. Koyambedu is one of India’s largest perishable goods markets.
After the shutting of Koyambedu market, a temporary wholesale vegetable market was set up in Thirumazhisai in Tiruvallur district. The market was opened with 200 shops on May 11 and operates between 3 am and 10 am. This raises a question if the opening of the market had caused the spike in cases in Tiruvallur.
Moreover, the results of the samples taken from persons in the market, who had come in contact with the Koyambedu cluster, have begun to come. Sources say this might be the main reason behind the surge. While the district saw 63 new cases on May 7, the number increased to 75 on May 8 and 97 on May 11.
However, M Thyagarajan, president of the Koyambedu Fruits, Vegetables and Flower Merchants’ Association, says only a few people visit the temporary market as it far from the centre of the town. “Only merchants from the outskirts [of Tiruvallur] are coming here. We are seeing only 50 per cent of business compared to Koyambedu,” he says.
It’s location next to Chennai, makes Tiruvallur an entry point to the city on travel by road. A lot of farmlands in the district have turned into plots with the growth of real estate. So, numerous migrant labourers do construction works in the district. The district has constant vehicular movement to and fro Chennai and this could also be a reason for the spike, says Dr K Kolandasamy, former director of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.
“Other than its proximity, no other reason can be attributed to the spike. In many places, it is hard to see handwashing facilities at stand-alone shops or hotels,” he says. In some places, including apartments, security guards have been giving hand sanitisers to visitors. But that is not sufficient. There must a proper handwashing facility, he says.
Thirumazhisai market too lacks handwashing facilities. Though lorries are disinfected, vendors should wash their hands before loading and unloading their products, says Kolandasamy. “Having two or three handwashing facilities is not sufficient,” he says.
However, Kolandasamy rules out the possibility of spike due to the newly-opened vegetable market. Thyagarajan too concurs with him. “There is a little possibility of the disease spreading from here because everyone is allowed inside the market only after testing, says Thyagarajan.
Though the market has four entry and exit points, vehicles are allowed only through the front way. This affects the business of vendors who had put up their shops on the other sides, says Thyagarajan, demanding that vehicles be allowed also through the back entrance too.
On May 13, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami cited Koyambedu vendors as the reason for the rapid spread fo the disease. However, an office-bearer of the merchants’ association says only the encroachers and unlicensed vendors are the reasons for the spread.
“Licensed merchants followed all rules, including social distancing and having hand sanitizers. But it was the unlicensed vendors and encroachers who had caused this fiasco. The government must first take action against them,” he says.
Though The Federal repeatedly tried to contact the Tiruvallur Collector, the official was not reachable.