The low number of Covid-19 positive cases reported from Bengal, even taking into account the widespread suspicion that the state is hiding the actual numbers, is just the tip of a devastating iceberg.
Experts warn that the abysmally low rate of testing (for the coronavirus) in the state is the reason for the low numbers of positive cases detected in Bengal. Bengal has, perhaps, the worst track record as far as testing is concerned.
Despite the fact that it is one of the most populous states in the country, Bengal’s testing percentage at 0.00314 per head of population is one of the lowest in the country. Till Tuesday (14 April ), Bengal had tested only 3,081 swab samples.
Epidemiologists and public health experts say that Bengal is still not following the latest guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that says that all those who display even mildest symptoms of Covid-19 infection like mild influenza should be tested immediately.
At present, Bengal is testing only patients who display aggravated symptoms of the viral infection. The need now, say experts, is to carry out extensive tests even in hotspots — areas from where a large number of positive cases have been reported.
After the Director of ICMR-National Institute of Cholera & Enteric Diseases (ICMR-NICED) told a TV news channel that Bengal should test more and even carry out random tests in vulnerable areas, many other epidemiologists and public health experts have come up with similar suggestions.
“The pathetically low number of tests conducted by health authorities in Bengal is giving a terribly false picture of the situation in the state and is breeding a dangerous sense of complacency. By all indicators, the number of Covid-19 positive patients in Bengal should be much more than the ridiculously low figure of 120 ‘active cases’ that the state is proclaiming (as on Tuesday evening),” said an epidemiologist at a state-run hospital.
The ICMR-NICED director, Dr Shanta Dutta, had earlier, given the lie to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s allegation that only 40 testing kits were given to Bengal.
She said on Tuesday that testing only those who reach hospitals with grave symptoms of the infection “simply won’t do”.
“It is absolutely necessary to test not only those who display even mild symptoms, but also conduct random tests all over the state. There will be many untested people who have been infected and are not displaying any symptoms, but are carriers and passing on the virus to many others,” said a virologist with a private healthcare facility.
Public health experts also point out that Bengal’s laxity in enforcing lockdown restrictions and maintaining social distancing norms would have definitely created a dangerous situation by now.
“Bengal has, perhaps, been the most lax in enforcing restrictions. People have been crowding at markets and public areas, many have flocked to mosques and people have been seen going out of their homes even without any purpose. This would definitely have spread the virus by now,” said the virologist.
The ICMR-NICED Director strongly urged “field intervention” in demarcated areas. “During ‘field intervention’ in demarcated areas, the state government should ensure that no one should come out of their houses unless it is very urgent. Ideally, people should get items of daily needs at their doorstep and the government should make elaborate arrangements. This is all there in the ICMR guidelines. Those who flout the rules should be punished as per law. The government must adhere to these guidelines to prevent the virus from spreading,” said the Director.
But the Bengal government is not following these guidelines and has, in the name of making life easy for people, allowed even flower markets and shops selling tobacco products to remain open. Vegetable and fish markets, besides grocery stores, have also been functioning normally without any restrictions or any effort to impose social distancing norms.
“Bengal is sitting on a volcano and there is every likelihood of an explosion of coronavirus cases in the state. Things will go out of control then,” warned the virologist.
Bengal has, so far, received three missives from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) asking it to enforce lockdown restrictions and social distancing norms very strictly. But on the ground, these restrictions are still being flouted with impunity.
Thanks to the chief minister’s repeated warnings to the state police to desist from ‘committing excesses’ while enforcing lockdown restrictions, the men in uniform have also been very lax and lenient. This, say public health experts, has encouraged huge numbers to flout the lockdown restrictions and resulted in the spread of the virus.
This spread, they say, will be detected only when little can be done to salvage the imminent explosion of cases. “Thanks to the low level of testing, we are thinking that the virus has not spread in Bengal. But that is not true, and when the explosion happens and hits us with full force, the situation would have spiralled out of control,” said a public health expert.
Significantly, none of these virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts were willing to be named as they feared retribution and harassment from state authorities.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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