Bengal’s Covid Combat: A Sorry Saga Of Quirky Measures, Whimsical Methods, Lax Enforcement And Lost Opportunities

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 24, 2020 12:48 PM +05:30 IST
Bengal’s Covid Combat: A Sorry Saga Of Quirky Measures, Whimsical Methods, Lax Enforcement And Lost OpportunitiesBengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
  • The Mamata Banerjee government must ramp up Covid-19 testing by working closely with the Centre, and not waste time playing politics at every step.

Desperate times, it is universally acknowledged, demand bold measures. And so it is with the Bengal government which has, however, mistaken ‘bold’ for ‘bizarre’.

The state’s battle with the dreaded coronavirus took yet another quirky turn this week with the state government announcing a random twice-a-week total shutdown. Thursday (23 July) was the first day of this bi-weekly shutdown which, the state frantically hopes, will be able to break the galloping spread of the virus.

The random lockdown — Thursday and Saturday this week — has confounded medical experts who say they see no logic in such a step. The state government’s declaration that the dates of the lockdown would be chosen at random with just a few days’ notice has evoked ridicule and criticism in equal measure.

The state home secretary, while acknowledging that community transmission of the virus has started in some places, announced 29 July as the first day of next week’s two-day lockdown. The second day will be notified later.

The logic of this, say experts, is no logic at all.

“Is the state government trying to confuse the virus by not announcing lockdown dates much in advance? How does it break the transmission chain like this?” wondered a renowned epidemiologist at a premier state-run hospital in Kolkata.

Social media has, expectedly, erupted with memes and jokes on this. Netizens are having a field day pouring scorn and ridicule on the state’s latest corona-combat tactic.

According to a senior joint secretary-level official, who is privy to the state government’s decision-making process regarding the pandemic, the random lockdown idea was put forward by a top bureaucrat.

This top bureaucrat told Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that a premier scientific institution based in Bengaluru had recommended periodic or random lockdowns for one or two days a week as an effective means to check the spread of the virus.

A couple of public health experts also went along with the bureaucrat’s recommendation. They emphasised that unlike the past lockdowns, this would require total compliance. The Chief Minister agreed and asked the police to ensure strict enforcement of the lockdown.

Lax Lockdown

Thus, for the first time since the nationwide lockdown was announced in end-March, the police ensured complete enforcement on Thursday. This time, police even detained violators and seized their vehicles, asked shops that had opened to shut down and drove people off the streets.

Bengal earned the dubious distinction of being the only state where the lockdown has, until Thursday, been observed only in violation. Thanks to Chief Minister Banerjee’s insistence that the lockdown be enforced with a 'human face', the police did not bother to even admonish violators in the past.

As a result, no one took the lockdown seriously. Banerjee also allowed fish and vegetable markets, and even flower markets, to remain open. Vehicles — both private and public — and auto-rickshaws as well as two-wheelers plied without fear. Regular prayers were allowed in mosques.

Along with lax enforcement, Bengal’s combat against the coronavirus was marked by opacity and a series of blunders. For three months, Bengal continued to be in denial and maintained that the pandemic was under control in the state.

Low Testing Rate

Bengal went slow on testing right from the very beginning. And when it started scaling up, the effort simply lacked urgency. Thus, Bengal is one of the few states where the rate of testing is below the national average.

Until Wednesday (22 July), Bengal had tested about 7.17 lakh swab samples and the testing rate stands at 7,261 samples per million people. In comparison, Delhi conducted 43,708 tests per million, Tamil Nadu 25,714, Andhra Pradesh 25,269, Karnataka 15,820, Rajasthan 15,555, Kerala 15,397 and Maharashtra 13,154.

Bengal had, initially, tried to shift the blame for low testing rate to the Centre, alleging that the Union government had not supplied adequate testing kits. But that lie was busted soon.

Bengal has not ramped up the number of testing laboratories even four months since the outbreak of the pandemic. The 56 testing laboratories across the state are already overburdened and it takes three days at least for a laboratory to deliver test results. The waiting period for getting tested is also three days on an average.

Bengal’s testing capacity now stands at a very modest 13,000 samples a day. Uttar Pradesh tests more than 43,000 samples a day and states like Maharashtra and Karnataka test more than 36,000 samples a day.

Banerjee said earlier this week that the number of tests would be increased to 25,000 a day by 25 August, but healthcare professionals are skeptical about her promise.

That more than half the testing laboratories are in Kolkata speaks volumes about the abysmal state of healthcare in the rest of the state.

Bengal had, since the very beginning, suppressed the actual number of Covid-19 positive cases.

“The state government felt that by suppressing figures, Bengal could be portrayed in a good light,” said an ICMR official.

Avoidable Controversies

Also, due to the low testing rate, a huge number of  Covid-19 positive cases went undetected. The state waded into unnecessary controversy by issuing orders banning doctors from mentioning coronavirus infection as the cause of death of a Covid-19 positive patient.

At a time when it should have focused all attention on improving health infrastructure and testing facilities, Bengal frittered its energies in hounding people who exposed its lack of preparedness. It booked doctors and others who exposed faulty PPE kits and the sorry state of dedicated Covid-19 hospitals.

The state government also expended a lot of time and effort in vainly crossing swords with the Union government on a host of pandemic-related issues. Be it the running of Shramik Special trains or Vande Bharat flights, Bengal’s stance was at variance with all other states and always inexplicable as well as self-defeating.

Poor State Of Healthcare Facilities

The poor state of government healthcare institutions in Bengal is cited by medical experts as the only reason behind the high fatality rate. Bengal’s casualty rate (from the virus) is nearly 2.5 per cent, which is higher than the national average. In comparison, the casualty rate in Tamil Nadu is 1.68 per cent, Karnataka 2 per cent, Andhra Pradesh 1.27 per cent, Uttar Pradesh 2.27 per cent, Rajasthan 1.79 per cent, Bihar 0.69 per cent, Haryana 1.31 per cent, Jharkhand 0.96 per cent, Chhattisgarh 0.48 per cent and Assam 0.23 per cent.

A good comparison of Bengal would be with Telangana since both the states have registered a similar number of Covid-19 positive cases. While the case count in Bengal (until 22 July evening) stood at 49,321, it was 49,259 in the case of Telangana.

But while 37,666 patients had recovered in Telangana and 438 had died in the southern state, a lower number of 29,650 patients have recovered so far in Bengal while 1,221 have died. Telangana’s casualty rate is 0.88 per cent.

What makes it worse is that Kolkata accounts for more than half the active Covid-19 positive cases in the state and also more than half the casualties.

“This only proves that the quality of healthcare in even the state capital is abysmally poor. And if that is the case in Kolkata, one can well imagine what it is like in the rest of the state,” said Sudhangshu Roy, a virologist with a state-run healthcare facility in North Bengal.

Public health experts and epidemiologists say that the number of beds available for treating Covid-19 patients has always been much lower than the demand, even in private healthcare facilities in Kolkata.

Thus, a large number of Covid-19 positive patients are not getting treatment and many of them are succumbing to the virus. Such deaths do not find place in official records.

Also, with the queue for testing even symptomatic patients very long, doctors say that many such patients are not being tested at all and dying undetected. Thus, the actual number of Covid-19 positive patients and casualties in Bengal would be much higher than the official figures.

This realisation dawned on the state’s top administrators by the end of June. And, thus, the hurried decision to  demarcate many parts of Kolkata that had witnessed a spurt in coronavirus infections as ‘containment zones’ that were put under strict lockdown.

Many other towns and municipal areas of the state were also put under lockdown.

However, it was a classic case of too little, too late (read this and this). And as was widely apprehended then, those measures did little to check the spread of the virus.

The latest steps — the random bi-weekly lockdown — will also have no effect, say experts.

What The Experts Suggest

Instead of resorting to futile measures like sudden lockdowns, public health experts say that concrete measures can be adopted even at this late hour to control the pandemic from getting completely out of hand.

First, the number of testing laboratories has to be increased and testing scaled up to at least 30,000 samples a day. Many reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) machines are lying unused in zoology laboratories of educational institutions and these ought to be requisitioned.

The state government has claimed to have opened up many hospitals all over the state in the past few years. But these are just empty buildings without beds, equipment and healthcare professionals. These non-functional facilities should be converted into properly equipped Covid-19 hospitals immediately.

Senior officials of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare assert that the ministry can provide the resources in kind, like medical equipment, beds and ventilators, equipment for ICUs and CCUs, testing kits, medicines and other necessities to make these facilities functional as Covid-19 care institutions.

But for that to happen, Bengal needs to jettison its futile confrontationist attitude and work closely with the Union government for the sake of the suffering masses of the state.

A lot can be achieved if the state starts cooperating with the Union government instead of playing politics at every step.

That, however, is easier said than done.

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