Bengal: More Trouble For Mamata Govt As Central Teams Make Embarrassing Observations, Pose Uncomfortable Queries

Bengal: More Trouble For Mamata Govt As Central Teams Make Embarrassing Observations, Pose Uncomfortable Queries West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Snapshot
  • The two central teams which have been sent to Bengal to study the pandemic situation in the state have written to state chief secretary recording some very uncomfortable observations.

Bengal’s cup of corona woes seems to be brimming over. The two inter-ministerial central teams (IMCTs) which have been sent to Bengal to study the pandemic situation in the state have written to state chief secretary Rajiva Sinha recording some very uncomfortable observations and asking some queries that will put the state in a highly embarrassing position.

The head of the IMCT touring south Bengal, Apruva Chandra, wrote to Sinha Friday seeking details of the committee of doctors (CoD) set up by the state government to declare Covid-19 casualties. The state government had set up this committee earlier this month and ruled that all hospitals have to send details of Covid-related deaths to the CoD, which alone is empowered to certify if a death has occurred due to the virus or a comorbidity.

Chandra, a senior IAS officer of the rank of additional secretary, noted that Bengal’s principal secretary (health) had made a presentation to the IMCT Thursday and had said if a Covid-infected patient dies in a road accident, the cause of the death cannot be the (viral) infection.

“The IMCT did not find the reasoning convincing as there is no comparison between a road death and death in a hospital due to a disease,” said Chandra in his letter.

Chandra has asked the chief secretary to furnish the government order constituting the CoD, case records of all Covid patients where cause of death had been attributed to comorbidities and the time taken by the CoD to reach this conclusion in each case.

The IMCT also wanted to know if a similar committee to ascertain the cause of death due to any other disease exists in Bengal and if such a committee is in accordance with ICMR guidelines. It also sought an interaction with the committee to understand its methodology for examinig and certifying deaths.

Sensing trouble, the state chief secretary announced Friday evening that a total of 57 Covid-19 infected patients had died in Bengal, but 39 of those deaths were linked to comorbidities. Thus, the virus has claimed only 18 lives so far in the state. The state health bulletin issued Friday evening showed the number of Covid related deaths as 18 and the active Covid-19 patients as 385, considerably lower than the Union Government’s figure for Bengal of 514.

Bengal has been gripped by a raging controversy over the number of Covid casualties and the state government has been widely accused of suppressing the actual number of deaths. There have been rumours about bodies of Covid-infected patients being disposed of surreptitiously.

This controversy erupted when an expert committee of doctors (also constituted earlier by the state government) told the media on 2 April that the total number of deaths stood at seven, and four had died in the past 24 hours. This reportedly incensed the chief minister because it upset her plans to show that the pandemic was under control in Bengal.

She then asked the chief secretary to tell the media that the expert committee had erred and the actual death toll was still three. The four deaths in the last 24 hours, the chief secretary declared, were due to comorbidities.

Chandra had written another letter to the chief secretary Thursday evening making some very uncomfortable observations and posing more queries. That letter was written after the IMCT visited the two dedicated hospitals for treating Covid-19 patients: the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) and the M.R. Bangur Hospital.

The IMCT head observed that a large number of patients in the isolation wards at both these hospitals were awaiting their test results for five days or even more. Some patients who had tested negative were still kept back at the hospitals. The IMCT asked why test results should take such a long time and why persons who had tested negative were being held back at the hospital.

The team observed that the admission process at Bangur Hospital was “chaotic” and social distancing norms were being flouted in the waiting area for patients seeking admission. Symptomatic patients or those testing positive referred to Bangur Hospital from other hospitals have to reach Bangur on their own and there is a risk of such patients not reporting to Bangur or turning up late, thus transmitting the virus to others.

Bangut Hospital catering to 354 serious Covid patients had only 12 ventilator beds, the committee observed. The committee was told by hospital authorities that if a ventilator is not available for a serious patient, the patient would be shifted to another facility. Chandra has asked for the relevant records of serious patients who have been shifted to other facilities.

Referring to reports and videos in the social media of bodies lying on beds in a ward at Bangur for hours, the hospital authorities reportedly admitted it was possible. The IMCT was told it takes up to four hours to issue a death certificate and a body is shifted to the mortuary only after that.

“It is not clear why a body should lie in a ward in full view of other patients and not (be) shifted to the mortuary even while awaiting death certificate,” wrote Chandra while asking for records on how much time it takes to issue a death certificate and shift a body to the mortuary.

The IMCT has also sought details of the testing protocol followed by the state and asked how many of the 900-odd tests that Bengal claims to have started conducting per day are repeat (or confirmatory) tests. Stating that the IMCT was informed that between 1.25 lakh to two lakh people were being screened in each district every day by survey teams, Chandra asked for details on how many of the screened people had been tested for Covis-19 infection and been found positive.

Chandra noted that from the presentation made by state health authorities to the IMCT, Bengal appeared to be reaching almost its peak capacity for testing. He has sought to know if the state plans to increase the testing capacity and details of such a plan.

The IMCT acknowledged “considerable disquiet” prevailing among healthcare professionals and workers over their vulnerability, and asked the state government to furnish the order stating that all doctors and health workers can get themselves tested for free even on a daily basis. The state health authorities made this claim during their presentation to the IMCT.

The IMCT, said Chandra, was told that a health worker in Bengal was free to choose between the state scheme of compensation of Rs 10 lakh in case of death due to Covid-19 infection of a worker and similar scheme by the Government of India that provides compensation of Rs 50 lakh. Chandra has asked for a copy of this order.

While the observations are certain to cause serious discomfiture to the state government, providing honest answers to many of the queries may put the Bengal government in a tight spot. But evasive tactics, as is clear from the attitude of the IMCT, will not work.

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