West Bengal

Bitter political battle

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Unmindful of the spread of COVID-19, people stand close to each other outside a liqour shop after sales resumed at New Market in Kolkata on May 4 . Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee distributes face masks during her visit to a ration shop in Kolkata on April 17. Photo: AFP/DIBYANGSHU SARKAR

Discrepancies in the counting of the COVID dead and the State’s lowest position in testing in the country do not prevent the government from patting itself in the back for its handling of the crisis.

At a time when it was expected that political differences and one-upmanship would be set aside to focus on the catastrophe that the spread of COVID-19 presents, the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal has been locked in an unseemly political battle with not just the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre, but also other opposition parties in the State over the State government’s handling of the crisis.

While West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her administration have claimed that the State government’s COVID-19 management has been among the best in the country, they have repeatedly had to face allegations of suppressing information (relating to hotspots and containment areas), fudging data (particularly of the number of COVID-19 deaths and the total number of people affected) and failing to enforce the lockdown uniformly across the State. This has led to a bitter political feud not just between the Trinamool Congress and the opposition parties within Bengal, but also between the Centre and the State government.

As of May 4, according to the State government, 133 patients with COVID-19 infection had died, of which 61 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 and 72 to comorbidities. The comorbidity deaths were declared on April 30 after being cleared by the “Audit Committee” set up by the State government to determine COVID-19 deaths. The total number of COVID-19 cases in the State stood at 1,259, of which 908 were active cases. The State government claimed on April 27 that its “positive confirmation rate” at 5.4 per cent was around the same as the national average of 5.25 per cent; at 18 per cent, the recovery rate in the State was the highest in the country; the fatality rate, which the State put at 2.6 per cent (at that time the death count owing to COVID-19 was 20) was lower than the national average of 3.1 per cent. However, according to the calculations of the inter-ministerial central teams (IMCTs) that were touring the State, as of April 30, the mortality rate among COVID-19 patients in Bengal, at 12.8 per cent, was by far the highest in the country, and according to the IMCT, “a clear indication of low testing and weak surveillance and tracking.” The IMCT’s calculation was done on the basis of the total death count of 105, and the total number of COVID-19 cases of 816.

The government’s competitive claims, however, could not hide the fact that with just 25,116 sample tests done (as of May 4), West Bengal’s position in testing is among the lowest in the country. The Calcutta High Court directed the State government to take a “deeper look” into the need for more COVID-19 tests to be conducted in the State. Though the rate of testing has picked up from 109 per million (on April 24) to 279 per million, it is still way below the national average of 721 tests per million.

The conflict over COVID-19 data has been a continuing phenomenon. While the Centre had claimed that 10 districts in the State were in the Red Zone, the State government in a communication to the Centre pointed out that only four districts in the State were in the Red Zone. The State government also seemed to be contradicting itself in presenting COVID-19 data. In its communication to the Centre on April 30, the State government said that the total number of COVID-19 cases in the State stood at 931, while on the same day, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha had put the number at 744 during his press briefing.

The Centre-State conflict reached a flashpoint on April 20 when the Centre deployed two IMCTs to West Bengal to look into allegations of rampant violation of lockdown. Initially the State government refused to cooperate with the teams, but finally capitulated after a stern letter from the Home Ministry. However, the IMCTs were a thorn in the side of the State government until they left on May 4. In its final letter to the government, one of the teams wrote: “…the State government has taken an antagonistic view to the IMCT and has not supported the IMCT in the performance of its duties....” The Central teams even raised questions regarding the system by which the “Audit Committee” was determining the cause of death of a COVID-19-positive patient. Interestingly, Rajiva Sinha said on May 4 that the government would not mention the comorbidity deaths anymore as “the hospitals have been told not to report co-morbidity deaths”.

The opposition got another handle to attack the State government with when a government circular in Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital surfaced, revealing the following instructions: “Death Certificate cause will be usual cause. In a case of Covid positive—no mention of Covid in D/C.” The circular dated April 25 was from the office of the Medical Superintendent cum Vice-Principal (MSVP) of the government college. Within hours, the MSVP was transferred. Cornered by criticism from all political quarters, Mamata Banerjee countered by likening the opposition to “vultures that are waiting for the dead.”

Doctors’ plight

Another alarming factor in West Bengal is the rate at which doctors and health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19. As of May 4, two doctors had died after contracting COVID-19. While doctors’ forums have constantly raised the issue of the requirement of more protective gear, even a group of NRI (non-resident Indian) doctors, originally from Bengal, wrote an open letter to Mamata Banerjee in which they voiced their concern over the handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Trinamool Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra struck back on social media asking why those doctors had not written to the heads of governments in their “adopted homes”. “Much easier to become heroes here, right?” Mahua Moitra caustically said. One of the Central teams in its communications to the State government had also referred to reports on social media of dead bodies lying in beds in a ward. “It is not clear why a body should lie in a ward in full view of other patients and not shifted to the mortuary even while awaiting death certificate,” the communication stated.

Protests

Meanwhile, there have been violent protests in different parts of the State over irregularities in ration disbursal, apparently linked to an alleged nexus between the local Trinamool leadership and the ration dealers. Another factor causing unrest at the local level has been allegations against the administration of trying to surreptitiously dispose of the bodies of those who have died after testing positive for COVID-19. Even Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar referred to the issue in his vitriolic exchange of letters with Mamata Banerjee. “Reports of disposal of COVID 19 dead bodies from several areas with heartless indescribable insensitivity is unconscionably shocking,” he wrote on May 4. It is significant that in the prevailing scenario, Trinamool’s political strategist, Prashant Kishor, was brought over to Kolkata from Delhi on April 20 in the middle of the nation-wide lockdown.

Bickering between political parties and bitter exchanges between the Chief Minister and the Governor have, in fact, temporarily taken the attention away from the real danger at hand. Eminent Kolkata-based physician Fuad Halim told Frontline, “The COVID-19 situation is very bad. The community spread has already started, but it is for the government to declare it, not the doctors. The number of deaths has increased, but they are not getting documented as deaths due to COVID-19. What we are more worried about is that the strain that is affecting Gujarat —a much more lethal strain—may spread once the lockdown is lifted and the migrant labourers in Gujarat return to their homes in different parts of the State.”

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