West Bengal

'Too low' on testing

Print edition : May 08, 2020

A Kolkata street on April 13. Photo: PTI

Railway workers spray disinfectant on train coaches converted to isolation wards for COVID-19 patients, at Tikiapara Rail workshop in Howrah district of West Bengal on April 6. Photo: PTI

Lockdown failures, charges of data suppression on cases and deaths, very low testing, lack of protective equipment for health care workers and the need to have at least some sections of industries up and running are some of the issues Mamata Banerjee has had to wrestle with.

WITH 10 deaths and 144 “active” cases of COVID-19 (according to the State government’s official bulletin of April 16), and with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her administrative machinery making all the right noises and taking prompt decisions, West Bengal gives the impression that it is doing reasonably well in dealing with the Coronavirus outbreak. However, the COVID-19 data put out by the government have led to questions about the low number of tests that have been carried out so far. As of April 16, only 3,811 tests had been done in a State with a population density of 2,670 persons per sq mile, among the highest in the country. Its rate of testing, at around 33.7 per million (as of the second week of April), is among the lowest in the country.

The number of deaths caused by the virus has also become a point of dispute. On April 2, even after the taskforce of doctors set up by the State government announced the number of fatalities to be seven, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha announced that it was actually three. Four of the deceased had been hospitalised with co-morbidities and their deaths were “yet to be established as COVID deaths”, he said. On April 5, the government set up a five-member committee to “ascertain the cause of death of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19”. The State administration, however, did not divulge how many cases had been referred to the “Audit Committee”. When asked at a press conference on April 16, the Chief Secretary could not give the figure.

This attempt to locate the cause of death for COVID-19-positive patients in pre-existing medical conditions has drawn strong reactions from opposition parties. Surjya Kanta Mishra, Polit Bureau member and State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “In our State we know how many deaths have taken place through information filtering in from areas outside the purview of the government, and one thing is certain, the number is more than what the State government claims it to be.”

Mishra, who is a doctor, said the death of anyone who tested positive for coronavirus must be seen as a COVID-19 death, whatever other illness the patient might have had. “But that is not what is happening in West Bengal. It is a known fact that those with co-morbidities are more susceptible if they get infected with Coronavirus. So it is pointless to insist that a particular COVID-19 patient died of kidney problems or other ailments. He would not have died had be not been afflicted with COVID-19,” he said.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also attacked the State government on the issue. On April 6, Amit Malviya, who is in charge of the BJP’s IT (information technology) cell, posted on social media: “What is Mamata Banerjee hiding? No medical bulletin from the Bengal government on 2nd, 3rd and 5th Apr. Curiously number of Covid related deaths missing in the bulletin released on 4th.”

Predictably, there exists a discrepancy between the figures presented by the Centre and the State. According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the total number of confirmed cases in West Bengal stood at 231 as of April 16. But the State government bulletin, which only puts up the number of “active” cases, put the figure at 144.

The BJP also alleged that Mamata Banerjee was playing vote bank politics when at a press conference she refused to answer a question relating to participants from Bengal in the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi. The BJP posted on social media: “Mamata Banerjee when asked for an update on Tablighi cases said, ‘Don’t ask communal questions.’ Jamaat cases have exploded across, but no clarity on the latest numbers in Bengal. How many of them traced and tested. Results? No update at all! Has she made this about vote bank?”

The Chief Minister responded by announcing on April 8 that 177 people who had taken part in the Jamaat had been quarantined in the State, and 108 of them were foreigners from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.

According to administrative sources, Mamata Banerjee’s often brusque dismissal of probing questions is meant to pre-empt panic rather than willfully conceal information. “A little secrecy is needed in the functioning of a government…. If I see some news is liable to cause panic in a particular community, why will I spread that?” she herself said recently.

“Testing kits available”

The government has been facing criticism, particularly from the opposition, over the low number of tests carried out in the State. Initially the government said it did not have enough testing kits but subsequently acknowledged it had received kits. However, when asked about it in a press conference on April 11, Mamata Banerjee said: “We have asked for 50,000 kits from the Central government. We will start our operation when they give it to us…. Moreover, according to the guidelines of the ICMR, if there are no symptoms then there should not be any test. So we are following the guidelines of the ICMR.”

However, according to Shanta Dutta, Director of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), the nodal body of the ICMR in Kolkata, there are enough kits lying with NICED, which the State government has not been utilising. “In the eastern region, we are the depot for kits for the ICMR, and already we have 27,500 kits in our stock…. I do not think there was ever any shortage of kits,” she said to a national news channel on April 11. She further said that the number of tests conducted in West Bengal was “definitely low” compared with other States, and “too low” considering the high population density. “Heath is a State subject, so they have to take the action, and if they increase [the tests], we are ready to test the samples if they send them to us,” said Shanta Dutta.

She said that initially the State government was sending 80-90 samples a day, but the number had reduced drastically of late. According to her, NICED received only 18 samples on April 9, nine samples on April 10, and around 20 samples on April 11. Shanta Dutta added that the ICMR had revised its guidelines and now recommended tests for even those showing mild COVID-19 symptoms.

From quite early on, the State government had focussed on setting up quarantine centres and hospitals across the State and had roped in even private establishments. Mamata Banerjee directed that each district should have a hospital dedicated to COVID-19 cases. At present the State has 66 COVID-19 hospitals and 582 Institutional Quarantine Centres. As of April 16, a total of 12,196 people were kept in these centres and 36,982 people were under home observation/surveillance. The total number of persons admitted under hospital isolation until April 16 was 2,714, of whom 489 people were under observation.

Even f there are hospitals and quarantine centres there are still not enough personal protective equipment (PPEs) and proper masks for doctors and other health care workers. A significant number of doctors and nurses in the State have tested positive for COVID-19—nine doctors, five nurses and eight health workers since April 1 and as of April 14. “It is not just lack of medical equipment that is causing the disease to spread among health workers and doctors, but also at times late detection of cases. In most of the private hospitals, any patient is now being treated as a potential COVID-19 patient, and measures are being taken accordingly. Having said that, it cannot be denied that there is a major shortage of protective gear for the medical staff,” said a highly placed source in the medical sector. According to him, at present there are 1,452 beds for COVID-19 patients. “The government requires 4,000 beds soon, and so we can expect more private hospitals and establishments being roped in to combat the situation,” he said. On April 16, the Chief Secretary announced that 3.47 lakh PPEs, 2.23 lakh N95 masks, and 15.7 lakh ordinary masks had been distributed.

Lockdown enforcement

Right from the beginning Mamata Banerjee had insisted that the lockdown be enforced in a “humane” manner with as little trouble for the common people as possible. Although the lockdown has been largely successful in the State, violations of the government order have undeniably taken place and norms of physical distancing flouted, particularly in marketplaces and ration shops and banks. However, the police have made hundreds of arrests and have been seen to be vigilant and persuasive in dealing with people. In certain areas, the administration faced violent opposition while enforcing the lockdown. The government identified certain “sensitive areas” in Howrah, North 24 Parganas, Kolkata, and Purbo Medinipur districts. Apart from these areas, certain areas in Paschim Medinipur, South 24 Paraganas, Nadia, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts are under close observation. The “sensitive areas” have been divided into “core” and “buffer” zones, with “complete lockdown” in the core zones. The State government has also through an official order made wearing of masks mandatory for anyone stepping out of home. Schools and other educational institutions will remain shut until June 10.

While the State government claims that its police and administration have been enforcing the lockdown successfully in a strict but humane manner, the Centre has sent two notices over lockdown violations in the State. A Ministry of Home Affairs letter dated April 10 said: “As per further reports received from security agencies, gradual dilution of lockdown has been reported from West Bengal, with an increase in the number of exceptions being provided by the State government…. There is no regulation in vegetable, fish and mutton markets where people have been thronging in complete violation of social distancing norms, in Rajabazaar, Narkel Danga, Topsia, Metiaburz, Gardenreach, Ikbalpur, and Maniktala in Kolkata.”

Incidentally, the places highlighted by the Home Ministry happen to be Muslim-dominated, though violations have been taking place in other places as well. Political observers see this as an insinuation that the State government has been indulging in “vote bank politics” while enforcing the lockdown. The Home Ministry’s observations drew criticism from even the CPI(M), the Trinamool Congress’s bitterest political enemy. Surjya Kanta Mishra said: “The letter of rebuke that the Centre sent to the State government is wrong. It should not be interfering in such matters. It is doing so with a communal agenda.” On April 12, the Home Ministry sent another letter.

Early in the lockdown, Mamata Banerjee directed the district administrations to ensure that no one starved. The administration, along with non-governmental organisations, clubs, political parties and private individuals, has provided relief for the poor and the destitute by setting up community kitchens and distributing food. The State government announced free ration for families below the poverty line for six months and essential items at concessional rates for the poor. However, in several places there have been instances of a nexus working between the ration dealers and local leaders of the Trinamool, which has affected the disbursal of rations, resulting in protests by the poor.

Mamata Banerjee claimed that her government was taking care of around two lakh migrant workers from other States who were stranded in West Bengal. Meanwhile, it is estimated that well over one lakh mirgrant workers from Bengal are stranded in other States. Mamata Banerjee had written to 18 Chief MInisters with an appeal that labourers from Bengal should be looked after.

There was no sign of improvement of the plight of industrial workers and of those in the unorganised sector as the lockdown entered its third week. In order to provide some relief, Mamata Banerjee relaxed lockdown rules for certain industries, such as beedi and tea, but it did not help much. In Murshidabad district, around 12 lakh people are dependent on the beedi industry and beedi-binding, done by the women, is practically a cottage industry.

An influential Trinamool leader from Jangipur, Imani Biswas, who is also the owner of Howrah Beedi, one of the biggest beedi companies in the State, told Frontline that the situation was pathetic for beedi workers. “Hundred per cent of the beedis made by the bigger companies go to other States. Under the lockdown we cannot transport them even to Kolkata despite the relaxations allowed by the State government. The people working in the beedi industry are now dependent on government relief and the kindness of the people.”

On April 9, the State government allowed the tea gardens of North Bengal to resume work, but with only 15 per cent of the workforce in any given shift. Mamata Banerjee had earlier refused to allow the tea gardens to open, even though the Centre had given its nod. The tea unions, however, feel that the State’s decision increases the risk of the spread of COVID-19 in the gardens. “We had demanded that all workers be paid a stipend during the lockdown, but that demand was not heeded,” Basudeb Bose, West Bengal general secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) told Frontline.

Jute and agri packaging

The lockdown landed Bengal’s jute industry with its 2.5 lakh workers in a crisis. There are 61 operational jute mills in the State, with a total production capacity of around 3,000 tonnes of jute goods a day in normal times. Although the industry falls under the Essential Commodities (EC) Act, the State government did not allow the mills to function. The possibility of an acute shortage of jute bags was real and the worst-hit would have been the farmers who were getting ready to harvest the Rabi crop.

At the insistence of the Centre, Mamata Banerjee, on April 15, relaxed the restrictions: all 61 mills were allowed to function but with 15 per cent of the workforce. On April 13, Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani had written to the Chief Minister with the request that a “basic minimum” of 18 jute mills should be allowed to operate in the State to meet the demand for packaging of foodgrains. “These 18 mills will be asked to put only 25 per cent of the workers on roster basis,” Smriti Irani wrote.

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