Mumbai: Even as two new cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Maharashtra on Tuesday, the state government held an urgent meeting on COVID-19, the focus of which was to prevent ‘community transmission’ of the virus – the dangerous ‘phase-3’ of the disease, when the number of cases rises exponentially.
However, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray stopped short of taking the drastic measure of bringing Mumbai to a grinding halt by discontinuing rail and bus services.
Nonetheless, he warned that the government would be constrained to take the "harsh decision" if people don't exercise self-discipline and avoid unnecessary travel and gatherings.
A decision was also taken not to shut government offices for seven days, but to explore the option of them operating at half their staff strength.
State public health minister Rajesh Tope said strong steps had been taken to ensure that COVID-19 doesn't advance to the next phase. "Right now we are in phase 2 and strong steps are being taken to ensure that this doesn't advance to phase 3," Tope said.
Phase-3 is one of the four levels of transmission defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). It implies that the virus is circulating in the community and can affect those with no history of travel to affected areas or of contact with an infected person.
On Tuesday, a 49-year-old man in Mumbai, who had returned from the US on March 7, tested positive at Kasturba Hospital; the second person to test positive is a 26-year-old youth from Pune who had also returned from the US on March 14.
There are now 40 patients – 26 men and 14 women -- in the state infected with coronavirus, while an elderly man who had tested positive and was hospitalised in Mumbai died on Tuesday.
Thackeray said the condition of 39 patients is stable, while that of one is critical.
Sources told The Free Press Journal that at the cabinet meeting chaired by Thackeray, most ministers voted in favour of keeping the local trains, BEST buses and metro rail services shut for a week.
However, there was a rethink after Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta and BMC commissioner Praveen Pardeshi cited practical issues with regard to removal of garbage and supply of essential commodities, including milk, vegetables and foodgrains, as much of the workforce relies on these services.
More than one lakh conservancy and other daily workers travel by trains and buses, they pointed out.
The bureaucrats were also of the view that a 7-day closure of these services would not serve any purpose, as the self-quarantine period advised is of 14 days.
There are 75 lakh railway commuters, 45 lakh BEST passengers and 3.5 lakh metro rail passengers in Greater Mumbai. ''For many people it is a lifeline -- for earning their daily bread and butter.
We are not going to stop the trains and buses from plying. However, people should desist from unnecessary travel. If they don't stop unnecessary crowding, we will have to take a tough decision," Thackeray said.
“Traffic has diminished considerably. People should venture out of their homes only during an emergency. We are working on how to ensure working of government offices with a minimum attendance.
If not required, don't venture out of homes. We don't wish to take harsh steps. People understand the gravity of the prevailing situation. Those who have the stamp of self-quarantine should stay at home. The next 15 days are crucial. People need to exercise self-restraint," he said.
The state cabinet also decided not to go ahead and order closure of all government offices for a week. Instead, Thackeray said the government would explore an option of government offices functioning at only 50 per cent staff capacity, on the lines of what has been directed for the private sector.
“We can't give them a week's holiday. However, we are thinking of reducing the working staff by almost 50 per cent. We will come out with a plan on this soon," the Chief Minister said.
***Thackeray called upon the hotel and restaurant owners to follow the initiative taken in Pune and shut down for a few days on their own. He said he also expected owners of non-essential services and commodities such as clothing and ornaments to close down temporarily.
"It would be good if shopkeepers shut down their establishments on their own, except in case of essential services like grocery supply," the CM said.
The BMC, meanwhile, on Tuesday opened a new isolation ward with 20 beds at the trauma care hospital in Jogeshwari.
(With inputs by Vikas Nag)