Bengal’s Coronavirus Combat: A Classic Case Of Too Little, Too Late As Pandemic Crisis Deepens  

Bengal’s Coronavirus Combat: A Classic Case Of Too Little, Too Late As Pandemic Crisis Deepens  Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee
Snapshot
  • Healthcare professionals in Bengal say the pandemic is now threatening to spiral out of control. The state, they say, is at a highly critical juncture — all thanks to a “mercurial” chief minister.

Bengal’s lackadaisical approach towards enforcing lockdown and social distancing norms, and allowing people to gather in public places, seems to have accelerated the spread of the dreaded Coronavirus.

According to both senior health department officials and healthcare professionals, the pandemic is now threatening to spiral out of control. Bengal, they say, is at a highly critical juncture.

Indications that the crisis has probably deepened much beyond what the Bengal government will let out was available from early this week in Kolkata.

Police, Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and health department launched an intensive drive to battle the pandemic.

Many areas were locked down totally and a virtual curfew has been imposed. Panic spread in many areas of the state capital as more and more people started displaying symptoms of Covid-19 infection and testing positive.

Markets that had remained merrily open all these weeks since the nationwide lockdown in end-March were finally shut down and the police have started imposing the lockdown very strictly.

KMC workers launched an intensive sanitisation drive in the ‘containment zones’ that had been placed under round-the-clock police vigil to prevent entry into and exit from those zones.

The state health authorities also stepped up collection of swab samples for testing. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee drove around some parts of the city on Tuesday, especially Muslim-dominated areas from where large-scale flouting of lockdown restrictions were being reported all these weeks, to appeal to people over a public address system to stay indoors and follow lockdown restrictions.

The initial list of 27 areas in Kolkata that were classified as high-risk zones which were put under complete lock down was revised to 112 on Tuesday. Huge swathes of north, south-west and south-east Kolkata have been categorised as high-risk zones.

“The situation is critical and the virus is spreading like wildfire. We have to put more areas under lockdown immediately to break the infection chain,” said a senior health department official.

Elsewhere in the state, too, desperate measures are being taken to break the chain of infection. Many districts have reported a spurt in the number of people displaying symptoms of Covid-19 infection, even though the state authorities are keeping the numbers under wraps and are yet to ramp up testing.

Bengal could have avoided the pandemic situation reaching such a critical stage, say epidemiologists, virologists and public health experts. The utter laxity in enforcing lockdown restrictions and social distancing norms is costing the state very dear.

The lackadaisical approach in combating the Coronavirus emanated right from the top of the state machinery and percolated down to all levels, say public health experts.

In early March, when the virus made its appearance in the country and the Union government sounded the alert, Mamata Banerjee infamously said that the Coronavirus panic was being created to divert attention from the Delhi riots.

“The message went to all in the state administration that the pandemic need not be taken seriously. Even those within the state administration who realised the gravity of the situation at that early stage did not try to get things moving because that would have invited the ire of the mercurial chief minister who doesn’t brook even minor defiance,” said a senior health department official.

It was only in end-March that Bengal’s administrators started realising the enormity of the pandemic staring at the face and started taking baby steps to contain it. But the chief minister’s tendency to chart her own course laid waste to all plans to combat the pandemic.

Right from the beginning of this ongoing lockdown, Banerjee insisted that the restrictions would be enforced “with a human face”. At a time when police in other states were strictly enforcing the lockdown, she went to restrain the cops with her “no barabari” (no excess) diktat.

She refused to impose a total lockdown (read this) and insisted that vegetable, fish, meat and even flower markets would remain open in the state.

Her pleas to maintain social distancing norms and avoid overcrowding in public places naturally fell on deaf ears since the police were restrained from taking strict action against violators.

In the early days till the fag end of March, Bengal was transparent in disclosing the number of Covid-positive patients and the areas they hailed from.

But ever since news of Tablighi Jamaat activists at the Nizamuddin markaz broke out, a complete blackout was imposed.

Allegations started surfacing that Bengal was concealing the actual number of Covid-19 positive patients (read this) in order to shield Tablighi Jamaat activists from the stringent criticism they were being subjected to in the country.

The lackadaisical approach of the state’s political leadership also affected the state health department, which went slow on collecting and conducting tests on swab samples. When all other states were ramping up testing, Bengal lagged woefully behind.

Many ascribe this to Bengal’s inexplicable obsession with keeping numbers low: more testing would reveal a greater number of Covid-19 positive cases, something that the state still does not want.

Till 1 April, only 659 samples had been tested. A week later (7 April), the number went up to 1,487. This despite the ICMR’s repeated exhortations to all states to scale up testing.

On 14 April, the total number of swab samples tested in Bengal stood at 3,081, much behind all other major states. And till Tuesday (21 April), only 5,469 samples had been tested in the state.

Healthcare professionals say that the collection of swab samples for testing was deliberately kept low in order to show that the number of positive patients in Bengal was low and the pandemic was under control in the state.

Doctors in even government hospitals were not allowed to order testing of samples from suspected patients without prior approval from the hospital authorities.

Allegations about the state fudging the numbers of Covid-19 positive patients flew thick and fast. Despite vehement denials by the state administration, the impression about opacity over the pandemic gained ground.

At the same time, doctors and paramedics in state-run healthcare facilities started complaining of lack of PPEs and non-adherence to treatment and safety protocols prescribed by the WHO and ICMR.

Many doctors and healthcare workers started testing positive (read this).

Bengal witnessed the unprecedented development of eight bodies representing healthcare professionals urging the chief minister on Tuesday to adhere to WHO and ICMR protocols, ensure transparency and proper facilities for healthcare workers. Junior doctors in the state-run Medical College & Hospital refused to work from Tuesday due to lack of PPEs, inadequate testing and terrible quarantine facilities for healthcare workers.

Meanwhile, videos allegedly showing bodies of Covid-19 casualties lying in wards of M.R. Bandur Hospital (the designated hospital for treating Covid-19 positive patients) and of rotten food being supplied to the tens of thousands in various quarantine centres (where facilities are deplorable) went viral.

The callousness of Bengal’s healthcare authorities resulted in the unchecked spread of the virus from coronavirus-infected persons to doctors and paramedics and then to other patients.

Flouting of protocols for treatment and disposal of bodies resulted in further spread of the virus.

The laxity in enforcing lockdown restrictions also resulted in Bengal reaching this critical stage. Epidemiologists suspect that the contagion has spread and the true extent of the spread will be known once the infected start displaying symptoms in the coming days and weeks.

The current measures being taken by the state administration — imposing total lockdowns in areas where people are displaying symptoms of infection, closing markets and getting people off the streets, and ramping up testing — may be a classic case of too little too late.

Bengal’s laxity on various fronts has allowed the contagion to spread, and public health experts say the toll for such laxity and negligence will be very high.

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