COVID-19 Update

West Bengal: Falling behind

Print edition : July 31, 2020

A random COVID-19 test under way in Tollygunge in south Kolkata, after a number of COVID-positive cases were reported from the area. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri

A crowded road in Kolkata on July 8. During Unlock 2.0, people were seen to openly violate norms of social distancing and not adhere to basic precautions such as wearing masks despite the government’s exhortations to do so. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/ PTI

Unable to make much headway in enforcing social distancing, and with the number of COVID-19 cases poised to rise exponentially, the West Bengal government announces a rigid lockdown in all containment zones across the State.

With the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths rising at an alarming rate in West Bengal, frantic political activities with an eye on the 2021 Assembly elections, unchecked relaxation of the lockdown conditions and flagrant violations of social distancing norms threaten to exacerbate the situation. On July 7, the State witnessed the highest single-day spike in COVID-19 fatalities for the fifth consecutive day, with 25 people dying in the last 24 hours. The total number of COVID-19 cases in the State stood at 23,837, with 7,513 active cases, of which 850 tested positive in the last 24 hours. The total number of COVID-positive people who have died was 829, and of the total number of deaths around 79 per cent of the patients had co-morbidities.

As of July 7, among the new COVID-positive cases, 291 were from Kolkata, 189 from North 24 Paraganas, 74 from Howrah, 70 from South 24 Paraganas, and 50 from Malda. As an immediate measure, the State government announced a lockdown in all the containment zones in the State from July 9 onwards. According to its order, there is to be “strict lockdown and the following activities, inter alia, may be closed inthese areas: i) All offices government and private; ii) All non-essential activities; iii) All congregations; iv) All transportation; and v) All marketing/industrial/trading activities…. Residents of the containment zones may be exempted and prohibited from attending government and private offices…”

Earlier, in a drastic move to curtail the spread of the virus, the State had stopped flights arriving from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Pune to Kolkata until July 19. Following the State government’s request to the Centre, international flights to Kolkata, too, were stopped. On June 25, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had extended the lockdown in the State until July 31 with the “existing relaxations” in place.

However, for all its efforts, the State government was not able to make much headway in enforcing social distancing or even necessary precautions such as wearing masks. With the relaxation of the lockdown and the reopening of offices, restaurants and shopping malls, people were seen flagrantly violating norms of social distancing and not wearing masks. Local markets were as crowded as they were in the pre-lockdown days and there was overcrowding in public transport. The overall situation barely gave the impression that the State was in the midst of a pandemic.

Furthermore, with the Assembly elections due in 2021, political activities also intensified, with protests, agitations and processions regularly taking place in different parts of the State. “The Chief Minister extended the lockdown, but was the lockdown ever really in place?” asked Dilip Ghosh, Lok Sabha MP and president of the West Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Finally, the State government had to issue a formal order making non-compliance of the norms to wear masks a punishable offence. The order, dated July 2, stated “…violation in compliance of norms of physical distancing and wearing of masks shall attract penal action as per law…. Anybody found in public places or on road without wearing masks shall forthwith be asked to wear masks and in failure to do so should be sent back. However, necessary penal action should be taken for repeat offenders.” However the order seemed to do little to bring about any major change in the general attitude of a large number of people.

Scarcity of hospital beds

With the number of COVID-19 cases poised to rise exponentially, a crisis of beds for coronavirus patients has already arisen in private hospitals. A highly placed source in the private healthcare industry told Frontline: “We are looking at a huge scarcity of beds. The State government has already appealed to the private sector to augment the bed capacity in the hospitals. Right now the occupancy rate in private hospitals would be 95-97 per cent.” Another source working for a well-known private hospital chain in the city admitted: “We are not able to accommodate even our own employees.”

Interestingly, as of July 7, of the 10,607 beds in government hospitals, around 7,790 beds were lying vacant, and the overall occupancy of COVID-19 beds was a mere 26.56 per cent— facts that are hardly reflective of the grim situation in the State. “The fact is that nobody wants to go to government hospitals, even though there are excellent doctors there. In a desperate situation people may have to go there, but those who will need critical care support may not find much help there,” said a source in the private sector. In the same vein, a doctor who had worked both in the government and later with the private sector said, “There is a reason why the Ministers and politicians did not admit themselves in the government hospitals when they contracted COVID-19.” Of the 79 hospitals dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients in the State, 26 are government establishments and 53 are private. Besides, there are 32 other private hospitals that have COVID beds. The total number of people in the 582 government quarantine centres is 5,294, and the number of people presently in home quarantine is 38,614. West Bengal also has 106 “safe homes” with 6,908 beds. As of July 7, there were 311 patients in these safe homes.

Opposition’s criticism

The State government has faced constant criticism from the opposition parties—the BJP, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress—for its apparent lack of transparency in handling the COVID-19 crisis and for allegedly suppressing facts.

The ruling Trinamool Congress has denied these allegations, claiming that West Bengal consistently uploads all its data on the government website. Senior Trinamool leader Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline: “West Bengal’s preparedness in taking on COVID-19 is an unprecedented thing. The recovery rate in the State is almost comparable with the very best in the country. We have been increasing our testing steadily. Ours is the only State where treatment for COVID is free and the rates in private hospitals are fixed (Rs. 2,250 for the test, Rs. 1,000 for the doctor’s consultation and Rs. 1,000 for PPE). What West Bengal has been doing, the other States are now following.”

As of July 7, the discharge rate in the State stood at 66.24 per cent, with a total of 16,355 people discharged, including 555 in the last 24 hours. The rate of testing samples per million population stood at 6,246. The government also announced plans to set up a plasma bank for treating COVID-19 patients.

While the government has undoubtedly stepped up its testing in the last month, according to eminent Kolkata-based physician Fuad Halim, it is still far from what is required. “In West Bengal, the testing is way behind the national average, which in turn is way behind the international average. We are already in the third position world-wide even with so few tests… we really do not know where we stand because of the lack of testing. There is no other alternative but to increase tests, identify the infected and isolate them,” Halim told Frontline.