COVID-19 States Update: West Bengal

COVID toll rising in West Bengal

Print edition : June 04, 2021

Queue at a vaccination centre in Kolkata on May 13. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. She has appealed to the people to take care of themselves. Photo: PTI

Since May 4 more than 100 people have been dying of COVID daily in West Bengal as the government’s desperate attempts to improve infrastructure fail to catch up with the spread of the infection.

As West Bengal struggles to cope with the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19, with more than 100 people dying every day, the worst is far from over yet. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on May 6 cautioned the people that the COVID situation was likely to assume an even more terrible aspect in the coming days: “I am not trying to scare, only alerting everyone that in the next 15 days the number of cases can spike. I appeal to everyone with folded hands—please take care of yourselves.”

That very day the number of new cases was 18,431. Six days later, on May 12, the number jumped to 20,337, up by 1,906; the number of people discharged was significantly lower at 19,231. From May 4 onward, more than 100 people have been dying every day. There were 135 deaths on May 12, taking the total death count to 12,863. The total active cases stood at 1,29,695. According to Dr Punyabrata Gun, convener of the Join Platform of Doctors, the official death toll may not give an accurate picture. “Not all the COVID deaths are being reported, as there are many who are dying without getting any hospital bed, and many people are not getting themselves tested. The crisis this time is far more acute than last year,” he told Frontline.

The State has neither the infrastructure nor enough oxygen beds and medicines to combat the situation. With cases rising exponentially, instances of people dying without treatment or for lack of oxygen have been on the rise. On May 8, two people died in a government hospital in Uluberia, Howrah, because oxygen was not available. Notwithstanding the State government’s desperate attempts to improve health care infrastructure, its woeful inadequacies are proving fatal for patients. Though the government website states that occupancy of COVID beds in government and government-requisitioned private hospitals was 40.68 per cent on May 12, the reality is completely different.

According to a highly-placed source in the private health care industry, data on the government portal are “extremely misleading” as they are not updated regularly, and it is practically impossible to get a critical care bed in a private establishment. “It is not that the government is not trying its hardest, but everybody is overwhelmed. The State is just not equipped enough to handle a pandemic of this magnitude,” the source told Frontline. Most hospitals are not even in a position to collect testing samples from people’s homes because of the enormous pressure they are under. What would earlier be available within 24 hours is now taking on an average 72 hours.

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Government hospitals like Sagar Dutta Medical College have people lined up in the corridors, sitting in chairs or even lying on the floor with oxygen masks on their faces. In many instances there is hardly any space on the floor, let alone empty beds. But hospital authorities, struggling with oxygen shortage and inadequate infrastructure, are helpless. At present there are 224 dedicated COVID hospitals—183 government hospitals and 41 private establishments requisitioned by the government. Though the government is frantically augmenting the number of beds, it is unable to catch up with the ever-increasing number of patients. The total number of earmarked COVID beds in hospitals is 19,458, and the total ICU/HDU (high dependency unit) beds are 2,711.

According to doctors, the immediate requirement is oxygen not just in COVID beds but also in SARI (Severe Acute Respiratory Illness) beds. Dr Gun said: “We have been demanding this for quite some time and also asking for COVID wings in all government hospitals across the State.” He added that the COVID helpline at Swasthya Bhavan (Heath Department headquarters) is not working as well as it was last year and should be ramped up. “We have been demanding more Rapid Antigen Tests to identify patients and more micro-containment zones. Also, with the increase in the number of beds, there has to be more doctors, nurses and health workers,” he said. On May 7, Mamata Banerjee wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting immediate allocation of 550 tonnes of medical oxygen a day against the Centre’s allocation of 308 tonnes per day.

At a time when most experts view mass vaccination as the main weapon against COVID-19, the State is facing an acute shortage of vaccines. All-night serpentine queues outside vaccination centres are a common sight. There are also frequent agitations and outbursts of anger when people are turned away after hours of waiting because vaccines are not available. Social distancing is done away with in the long wait, which also increases the risk of infection. While Mamata Banerjee has promised free vaccination for all residents of Bengal, she has taken a staunch stand against the Centre’s vaccine policy with its differential rates for the States. Pointing out that in a country of 140 crore people only a “microscopic percentage” has been covered, Mamata Banerjee wrote in a letter to Modi dated May 12: “Liberal, pro-active and discerning import of vaccination is the paramount need today.” She said that her government was “ready to provide land and support for any manufacturing/franchisee operation for authentic vaccine manufacturing.”

There have been a number of instances of people testing positive within a week of getting their first shot of a vaccine. While a number of people have showed symptoms of COVID post-vaccination, the doctors’ concern is with those who are asymptomatic because such people are likely to spread the virus unwittingly. Another alarming thing is that there have been reports of “sudden death” of patients showing mild symptoms. Though there have been only a few such cases so far, doctors are worried lest this trend starts to grow.

No lockdown yet

Though the State government has imposed a number of restrictions in order to check the curve of the virus, Mamata Banerjee appears reluctant to go for a complete lockdown. Addressing a press conference on May 10, she said: “We have already put many restrictions in place. It is my suggestion that instead of going for a complete lockdown, we behave as though there is a lockdown. Local trains have been stopped, jute mills have been ordered to work with 30 per cent workforce, hawkers have been given a particular time to conduct business. If we go for a complete lockdown now, people will not be able to eat. There are many poor people who earn on a day-to-day basis….”

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The State government has suspended the movement of local trains; allowed only 50 per cent of public transport and metro services to ply; and ordered that factories and tea gardens work with 50 per cent of their workforce. Attendance in government offices has also been reduced to 50 per cent, and the private sector has been requested to encourage work from home and allow up to 50 per cent attendance in offices. Earlier, the government had ordered the closure of all shopping complexes, malls, beauty parlours, cinema halls, restaurants and bars, sports complexes, gyms, spas and swimming pools and prohibited “social/cultural/academic/entertainment related gatherings and congregations”. A maximum of 50 people can gather at social functions such as marriage receptions. Bazaars and hats can remain open only from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Youngsters stepping forward

In the midst of all the death and suffering, there is rampant hoarding of COVID-19 medicines and oxygen cylinders by those who can afford it, resulting in a mushrooming of black marketeers. At the same time, youngsters, particularly college and university students, have been coming forward, risking their own lives to help out others in need. Several groups have come up on social media, such as Quarantined Student-Youth Network and Kolkatafightscovid19, through which young people are trying to ameliorate people’s suffering. Drishadwati Bhattacharya, a first year Masters student at Jadavpur University, is part of an ever-growing group of students who are using the reach of social media to help out those in distress. “Apart from constantly compiling and updating resources and information and making them available online to everyone, many among us are also delivering food, medicines and other provisions to those who need them but are not in a position to get them. It is not really one particular group that is doing this; everybody is involved,” Drishadwati told Frontline. As racketeering and political bickering continue over the bodies of the dead and the dying, the altruism of the youngsters comes as a ray of hope in these dark times.

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