A near stampede: How Mumbai’s biggest vaccination centre was overwhelmed

Officials running the Bandra Kurla Complex Jumbo Centre say they received vaccine supplies late, leading to management of crowds and queues falling apart.

A near stampede: How Mumbai’s biggest vaccination centre was overwhelmed
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“We’ll either contract Covid here or get a sunstroke,” said Lillian D’souza, 76, her face lined with anguish.

D’souza was standing inside Mumbai’s biggest vaccination facility, the Bandra Kurla Complex Jumbo Centre, run by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. On Tuesday, May 4, the Maharashtra government resumed its vaccination drive for those aged 45 and above in select facilities in the city, after a halt of five days owing to short supply of vaccines.

Vaccinations for the 18-44 age group began on May 1 as well. The BMC had tweeted on Tuesday night that only 20 percent of those aged 45 and above could walk in without an assigned slot. Each centre had 500 slots for 18-44; walk-ins were not permitted for them.

At most centres, there were more people in the queue than vaccines available and the chaos carried over to Wednesday, May 5.

Newslaundry spent four hours at the BKC Jumbo facility on Wednesday, where 8,000 people were vaccinated that day, according to its dean Dr Rajesh Dere. We witnessed scenes of confusion and pandemonium, including a near-stampede situation as people waiting for hours under the blazing sun pushed through barricades to enter the facility.

The queues began forming early in the morning. By noon, the tension was palpable, punctuated by loud arguments and swelling crowds with almost no physical distancing – not least because the centre’s management made an ad hoc decision to have a single line for everyone waiting outside. This included senior citizens who had registered on the clunky CoWin app, those above 45 who turned up without an appointment, and people waiting for their second doses.

Hopeful citizens in the 18-44 age group were also part of this queue; there was a separate line for those with appointments only inside the main premises.

Since January 16, the Bandra Kurla Complex Jumbo Centre has administered 2.5 lakh vaccines. But police personnel and BMC volunteers said that they had never seen a situation similar to what happened on Wednesday.

So, what went wrong?

To give the BMC some credit, it had organised separate waiting areas and entry points for different age groups and citizens who registered on the app and those who didn’t. This system, however, was not followed as the day progressed.

As the queues merged outside the centre, those waiting started to get upset. “They are making senior citizens wait so much,” fretted a woman from Andheri who was accompanying her 78-year-old mother. Her mother recently recovered from Covid and the daughter was struggling to find a chair for her while keeping her place in the queue.

“This is not safe,” she said. “We’ll get Covid here only. If they make everyone stand in the same line regardless of registration or age group, what’s the use of the appointment?”

A few chairs were available for senior citizens, as were a limited number of wheelchairs at a separate entry point. As the sun got harsher, some people sat on the ground, exhausted.

As the wait continued, Ameesha Sherwani, 50, who took a day off work to come to the centre, argued with a police constable at the entry point for registered people above the age of 45.

“I have tried day and night to get this slot on the app, and now I’m being told to stand in the same line as those who haven’t registered,” Sherwani told Newslaundry. “I’m only asking for what’s fair.”

By 2 pm, more and more people were thronging the centre. Barricades were put up at the entrance to control the number of people heading into the main premises. The queue outside, meanwhile, had spilled over onto the main road.

“Look at this,” said Rakhee Kamath, 49, a resident of Powai, pointing at the tightly-packed crowd. “Did we stay cooped up inside our homes for months, following all the rules, just to come here and get fully exposed?”

She also complained about the “one queue for all” approach, saying she’d spent hours on the government website trying to get appointments for herself and her husband Ganesh, 55.

At 2.40 pm, one of many arguments broke out between people in the queue and BMC volunteers over the long wait. About five minutes later, large numbers of people began pushing through the barricades, heading towards the main entry points. Some fell to the ground as officials helplessly tried to control the surge. Finally, some people were sent to designated waiting areas within the centre and the situation deescalated.

‘We are not getting doses on time’

Dr Rajesh Dere, the dean of the centre, told Newslaundry that they had received vaccine doses later than expected on Wednesday, only around 9.30-10 am. As a result, officials asked people to leave and return at noon, telling them that vaccination would happen between 12 pm and 5 pm.

“There was overcrowding. People started barging inside,” Dere said. “But the police were there. And once the vaccines arrived after 9.30 am, things became okay.”

Photos and videos of the crowd circulated on social media, showing long queues of people packed together. Dere claimed the photos were taken on Wednesday morning, before the doses arrived, though Newslaundry had witnessed the same scene in the late afternoon.

“We are not getting doses on time,” Dere said. “Secondly, there is confusion among the public. Those who are not registered are also flocking inside. Even when we explain to them that they should complete their registration, they do not listen to us.”

He added: “What can we do if there is a set capacity for each and every centre?”

A doctor at the centre also told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity, that the CoWin app briefly stopped working on Wednesday morning, which added to the delay.

A police officer posted at the centre said there had been a separate line for those aged 60 and up last week. But this didn’t happen over the last two days when the vaccination drive resumed. A BMC officially manning the entry points clarified that with the inclusion of those above 18, there was simply no space to add a third queue.

This came as a surprise to citizens who had received their first shot at the centre a few months ago. At the time, the centre had been praised for its smooth functioning.

“It was more organised when we came for the first dose; the whole process was done in 30 minutes,” said Preeti, who was accompanying her 74-year-old father and 73-year-old mother on Wednesday. “Today, we’ve been here for three hours.”

The frustration was summed up by a senior citizen who told a BMC volunteer, “Listen to me carefully. You will get Covid in two days.”

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