Coronavirus: Super spreader Koyambedu market stings Tamil Nadu; was the cluster avoidable?

Last Updated : 14 May 2020, 03:23 IST
Last Updated : 14 May 2020, 03:23 IST
Last Updated : 14 May 2020, 03:23 IST
Last Updated : 14 May 2020, 03:23 IST

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Just when Tamil Nadu was hoping that the worst was over, and the number of coronavirus cases would witness a downslide, emerged a cluster from the sprawling Koyambedu Wholesale Market Complex (KWMC) located in the heart of the state capital.

At the time of writing, over 1,400 positive patients of the total 5,409 cases in the state owed to the Koyambedu cluster which is expanding every passing day.

Experts warn the number of cases from the cluster could increase as the expansive market complex that houses 3,200 shops saw thousands of people coming to buy vegetables and fruits through the lockdown period till it was closed down completely on May 5.

And as if the crowd witnessed every day was not enough, there came an announcement from the Tamil Nadu government on April 24 that an “intensified lockdown” will come into force in Chennai and two other cities from April 26 to April 29.

All hell broke loose on April 25 as thousands of people drove to the market making a mockery of social distancing and other norms that health experts say one should follow during a pandemic. Videos of traffic snarls outside the market complex not just on April 25 but many days during the period and the uncontrollable crowd inside the premises speak for themselves.

‘Proper crowd management plan was missing’

“The market is located in a well-designed complex with proper planning and it could have been maintained well. The flow of the public could have been managed well within the complex by opening all the gates to allow free movement of people during entry and exit. The virus’ spread is much faster in a crowd. And this is what happened in Koyambedu as thousands went to buy vegetables every day,” Dr P Kuganantham, former Chennai city health officer and epidemiologist, told DH.

Since the market was open, several people rendered jobless due to the lockdown also turned vegetable vendors overnight turning up at the market. This trend was witnessed in Chennai, Chengalpattu, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur districts as hundreds of people and vehicles converged at the wholesale market complex.

The Koyambedu cluster could have been avoided, Dr Kuganantham said, adding that overcrowding at the market led to such a fiasco.

“The market fiasco could have been avoided as nobody expected it to emerge as a new cluster. Also, people went in large numbers every day to buy from the market which they could have avoided. Young people turning vegetable vendors during the lockdown also contributed to the numbers as they went from one area to another to sell vegetables and fruits,” he added.

Thousands came to the market every day

The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) that maintains the market woke up only after the first case was reported in end-April. The Market Management Committee (MMC), which has representatives from the traders’, is also to be blamed for the “mismanagement”, vendors said.

“Closing down the market was not an option in the first place as the supply of vegetables would have been affected. We had to ensure a smooth supply of 5,000 tons of vegetables every day for the needs of people. We would not have been able to ensure smooth supply if the market were shut,” senior bureaucrat D Karthikeyan, Member-Secretary, CMDA, told DH.

Experts and government officials said a lack of coordination between the CMDA and traders resulted in the market ending up as a cluster.

The government knew thousands of people, including lorry drivers, vendors, and labourers, were coming to the market every day, but not enough precautions were taken, and security ensured. Vendors and experts say the government should have deployed more police personnel and opened all the 18 gates of the complex to ensure free-flow of the crowd.

The first case from the market emerged in the last week of April and it spread like wildfire – retail outlets and those selling fruits and flowers were shifted to a different place on April 29 and the entire complex was locked down on May 5. It is after April 29 that the cluster travelled across the state as labourers and those visiting the market come from different regions of Tamil Nadu.

Thousands of labourers hopped onto the lorries that carry vegetable supplies to reach their native places. Backward districts in northern Tamil Nadu like Cuddalore, Villupuram and Ariyalur that amount for a good number of labourers at the complex have reported at least 400 fresh cases.

Lockdown within lockdown led to anxiety

Dr Kuganantham also said people thronging the Koyambedu market in large numbers before the intensified lockdown could also be a reason for the spurt in the number of cases. He also said the government’s idea of reducing the number of COVID-19 cases by enforcing a lockdown within lockdown did not yield desired results.

“People were anxious due to the intensified lockdown. The government thought they could make some progress by going in for a lockdown within lockdown. They thought it would result in some progress. But it was not so,” he said.

Abdul Khader, secretary of Koyambedu Vegetable Wholesale Merchants’ Association, said the MMC should have been “pro-active” in taking precautionary measures.

“There was no proper plan that was executed during the lockdown period. Though we are the ones who sell vegetables at the market, the MMC is the body that manages the market. They should have opened all the gates so that there is no crowding. And now the blame has fallen on traders,” he told DH.

Another trader, who wished to remain anonymous, said the retail market should have been shifted from the complex once the lockdown came into force. “It is the retailers who witnessed good crowd as people came in large numbers to buy from them and stock up vegetables. And the police should have been more in number to regulate the crowd,” he said.

‘Traders’ did not listen to government’

Karthikeyan said the traders did not listen to the CMDA’s repeated pleas to shift the market to suburban areas like Kilambakkam and Madhavaram.

“We could not have forcibly evicted them. After the first case was reported, we shifted retailers, fruit, and flower sellers to Madhavaram and now shifting the wholesale market out of the city. And Koyambedu is not a place in isolation. People come here from different parts of the city and even if one or two had the virus, they could have spread it to others due to the nature of the place,” he said.

The sprawling campus is now being disinfected and will undergo the fumigation process for the next two weeks.

Published 07 May 2020, 18:55 IST

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