From reporting first COVID-19 case in Maharashtra to being one of vaccine hubs: How Pune remained in focus during pandemic
From reporting first COVID-19 case in Maharashtra to being one of vaccine hubs: How Pune remained in focus during pandemic
ANI Photo

From earning the dubious distinction of reporting the first coronavirus positive case in Maharashtra in March this year to being the headquarter of one of the country's leading manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccine, Pune has remained at the centre-stage of the pandemic.

During the nine difficult months, the pandemic forced the city, like several other places in India, to witness a large-scale exodus of migrant workers, indefinite closure of educational institutes and financial impact on people's lives.

The district has so far reported over 8,700 deaths due to the virus. However, during this tough time, people from different walks of life, including healthcare, administration and police department, not only experienced the severity of the pandemic from close quarters but also took it head-on.

On March 9, a couple from Pune, who was part of a group that returned to the city from Dubai, tested COVID-19 positive. They were the first in the state to be found infected.

Their daughter and a cab driver, who had ferried the family from Mumbai to Pune on March 1, also tested positive.

"Being the first in the state to test positive was a big shock to us. But at the hospital, we completed our isolation period along with other patients and returned home," the 51-year-old man said.

"When we came back home, we were given a warm welcome," he said.

"Months after our discharge, I volunteered and donated my plasma. I was very happy to know later that two patients from the Sassoon General Hospital recovered with the help of the plasma donated by me," he said.

"COVID-19 changed our lives drastically. The pandemic has taught a lesson that we should adopt a a healthy lifestyle. I hope that in the New Year, we will get a vaccine and everything will be normal again," he said.

Although the first COVID-19 patient in the state was found in Pune, the city also helped the country in tackling the pandemic as the National Institute of Virology (NIV) here was the first laboratory to test the samples of people.

In the initial stage, the NIV not only tested samples, but also provided guidance and support to the associate labs in the country. The researchers and scientists, while working round the clock, had brought down the testing period of the swab samples to four to five hours from around 12-14 hours.

Currently, the institute is one of the few designated laboratories in the country, where genome sequencing of samples of COVID-19 positive people who had returned from the UK is being done to check if the strain found in the samples is similar to the new strain found in the UK.

During the pandemic, there was a stage when Pune surpassed Delhi and Mumbai in terms of the district-wise highest number of cases in the country.

Dr Deepak Mhaisekar, who was Pune divisional commissioner then said, "When reports about some COVID-19 cases from Kerala and European countries started coming in, we did anticipate that it may also hit us. Therefore, we started preparing Naidu Infectious Disease Hospital for that." After the first few COVID-19 cases of foreign travel history were reported on March 9 in the city, Mhaisekar recommended to the state government to close down schools and colleges to curb its spread, even before the national lockdown came into force.

"As the lockdown was imposed, we had two major challenges before us- the implementation of lockdown and tracing the symptomatic patients and the second one was related to the exodus of migrant workers.

"While we were trying to rope in private hospitals to increase the bed capacity, we had to simultaneously make arrangements to send migrant workers to their respective states after special trains started," Mhaisekar, who retired in July and who currently serves as an advisor to Maharashtra chief minister on issues related to COVID-19, said.

From 47 COVID-19 cases till March 31, Pune district's tally has grown exponentially to 3,60,194 with 8,763 deaths so far.

Being a dedicated infectious disease hospital, the civic run-Naidu Hospital was at the forefront in dealing with the COVID-19 cases in the initial stage, when other such facilities were yet to be set up in the city.

Dr Sudhir Patsute, medical superintendent at the hospital, is not new to handling epidemics as he was involved in tackling cases of H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009.

"Till the time Sassoon General Hospital and other hospitals were made ready to admit COVID-19 cases, Naidu Hospital was at the forefront in dealing with the cases in March. Though understaffed, doctors and nurses at the hospital were capable of handling such cases," he said.

He added that the hospital saw several ups and downs in the last nine months, but the system did not collapse.

As the number of deaths due to the virus surged in the district, the authorities stared at a new challenge of disposing of the bodies.

However, several individuals and voluntary organisations lent a helping hand on this front.

Arun Jangam, a contractual operator at one of the crematoriums in Pune, along with his family members, helped cremate over 3,000 bodies at different crematoriums.

"The flow of dead bodies has now slowed down, but when I look back, I still get goose-bumps as majority of the last rites of COVID-19 victims were performed in the absence of their family members," said Jangam, who is planning to write a book on his experiences.

The lockdown-triggered joblessness forced a reverse migration of thousands from Pune and nearby industrial belts.

Akshay Kothawale, (30) a rickshaw driver from Pune, earned praise for his noble gesture as he used the money that he had saved for his marriage to feed the migrant workers and those in distress on Pune streets.

"My conscience asked me to help the people in distress and I fed around 400 people everyday. Fortunately, monetary help poured from across the country and it helped me assist more people for a longer time," Kothawale, who is now planning to get married soon, said.

As the world is grappling with the pandemic, all eyes are now on the vaccine against the virus.

The city-based Serum Institute of India (SII) is developing a vaccine named 'Covishield'. It has partnered with global pharma giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

The phase-II clinical trials of Covishield began at different hospitals and medical colleges in the city in August.

Earlier this month, the SII applied to the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) seeking emergency use authorisation of the vaccine in the country.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited the SII last month to review the progress of the vaccine.

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Free Press Journal