West Bengal

What the numbers hide

Print edition : July 17, 2020

A rickshaw puller waiting for passengers in Kolkata on June 17. Daily wage earners are the worst hit as the city struggles to recover from the pandemic. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The number of active cases drop in the State, but doctors warn that there is danger ahead. The ruling Trinamool, meanwhile, faces outrage over cyclone relief distribution.

West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress government has been trying to project a positive picture of the COVID-19 situation in the State by highlighting the recent drop in the number of active cases, the relatively high discharge rate, and the increase in the number of tests being conducted. However, several doctors and experts say that the situation may actually turn grimmer owing to a number of factors in the post-lockdown scenario.

On June 22, State Home Secretary Alapan Bandopadhyay announced that the total number of active cases had been “showing a downward trend recently”. The number of active cases on that day was 5,111 out of a total of 14,358 cases. As of June 25, the number of active cases was 4,824 out of a total of 15,648. On an average, well over 400 new cases have been coming up every day in the State, with 475 cases on June 25, the highest daily spike so far. The total number of deaths was 621 on June 25, with around 74.26 per cent of the cases having co-morbidities. The State government also repeatedly emphasises that the discharge rate in West Bengal, standing at 65.12 per cent on June 25, is well above the national average of over 56 per cent. The State has also stepped up testing of samples. In the first week of May, the rate of testing per million of the population was just 364; on June 25 it stood at 4,881, and the total number of samples tested was 4,39,258, with well over 9,000 samples on an average being tested per day.

However, many doctors and experts feel that it would not be wise for the State government to congratulate itself so soon. The well-known physician Fuad Halim pointed out that the government’s own bulletin revealed that there was mass discharge only from a few districts, so no pattern had so far emerged to throw light on how things really stood. He argued that taking solace in the increase in the rate of recovery was pointless.

According to him, there should be greater focus in conducting tests in the containment areas. “The number of tests that are being done in the containment areas is something that the government is not revealing, and that is a matter of concern,” he told Frontline. “Ultimately the recovery rate should go up to a minimum 92 per cent, so harping on the fact that we have now a recovery rate of over 60 per cent does little to boost confidence… We are not doing all that needs to be done and, on top of that if we get complacent, then we are looking at a virtual time bomb.”

Many other doctors also feel felt the country had lost the advantage that the lockdown should have provided against the spread of COVID-19. According to Dr Halim, this was because the government was also locked down. “The problem was that the 15 lakh people who had landed from abroad from January onwards were not traced properly; and there was no adequate testing done in the initial stage of the lockdown. And when we were unlocked, there should have been a massive level of testing from the start… since we do not know where COVID is, the virus is having a free run,” he said.

Less food, less immunity

According to several reports, the food intake in rural India has been declining, which is a cause for concern, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. Post-lockdown, acute shortage of income, especially among lakhs of returnee migrants, has resulted in people eating less food. In Bengal, already more than 11 lakh migrants have returned. According to some calculations, the State has between 30 to 40 lakh migrant workers. Dr Halim said: “There has been weight loss, reduction in nutritional intake, and these two are important indicators when assessing herd immunity. Ultimately, development of immunity is related to the food we eat. If the food intake in the past three months has gone down, then we can safely assume that the number of people with reduced immunity has gone up. In this scenario the mortality rate will increase. If the government of India is looking at herd immunity, then it should release massive amounts of foodgrain.”

The migrants of Bengal received another blow when the Centre left out West Bengal from the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhijan, a scheme designed to provide income opportunities to migrants who have returned home following the lockdown. The Centre identified 116 districts in six States −Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan −and selected for the scheme districts with over 25,000 returnee migrants. Subrata Mukherjee, State Panchayat and Rural Development Minister, pointed out that there were several districts in Bengal that met this criterion. With the State elections scheduled to take place in 10 months’ time, in which the main contestants are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool, the Centre’s is being seen as making a politically motivated move. The BJP has claimed that the State government failed to provide the list of prospective beneficiaries under the scheme to the Centre.

With the relaxation of the lockdown and the State government’s claims of the situation improving, people are increasingly lax in adhering to safety norms. There is a tendency to ignore social distancing rules and to do away with masks. An eminent Kolkata-based doctor, Tamal Laha, said that such complacency was dangerous. “However high may be the recovery rate, it would be dangerous to think that the virus is going away, because the rate of incidence is getting higher. People should be aware of the fact that corona is still there, it is still rising, and it can still kill, and also keep in mind that our country is still trying to increase its resources in order to deal with the situation,” he told Frontline.

For all its apparent optimism, the State government also seems acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. It called for an all-party meeting on June 24 to discuss the COVID scenario and other pressing issues. On the same day, the influential Trinamool legislator from Falta, South 24 Paraganas, Tamonash Ghosh, died of COVID-19. The three-time MLA, who was also the party treasurer, was only 60.

Protest over Amphan relief

The spread of the coronavirus is not the only crisis the State government is facing. The coastal parts of Bengal are still reeling under the devastation caused by the supercyclone Amphan, which ravaged the State on May 20. Agitations over irregularities in the distribution of relief are rocking the cyclone-affected regions. While local Trinamool leaders and panchayat representatives are facing the brunt of the people’s anger, the district administration is not being spared.

The main allegation against the ruling party is that the money given by the government for repairing damaged houses is being misappropriated by local leaders and their family members. At Raidigihi in South 24 Paraganas, local residents forced a Trinamool panchayat leader to do squats holding his ears as a punishment for his alleged corruption. On June 23, mobs attacked the office of the Block Development Officer at Deganga in North 24 Paraganas.

The Trinamool was forced to take disciplinary action against erring members of the party as the protests began to spread. The party expelled Manoj Singh, pradhan of the Garalgacha gram panchayat in Hooghly district. In the list of 166 people he had submitted for cyclone relief, his own phone number was given against more than 100 names. Manoj Singh claimed that he was being victimised by his enemies in the party.

Irregularities in relief distribution was a major topic of discussion in the June 24 all-party meeting convened by the government. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “In some places some people have been deprived of relief. The administration has been asked to make the list of beneficiaries public…There is no scope of party politics in the distribution of relief.”

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