COVID-19 Update

Bihar & Jharkhand: Dangerous denial

Print edition : July 31, 2020

Stranded migrant workers waiting to board a special train to Bihar from the MGR Central Railway Station in Chennai on June 18. Photo: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Bihar and Jharkhand are apparently moving to the community transmission stage, with their governments and people throwing caution to the winds following the lifting of strict lockdown restrictions.

Bihar and Jharkhand have seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases since migrant workers started coming back home. Both the States are apparently moving towards the community transmission stage, but neither the governments nor the people seem to worry about it.

These States have followed a queer strategy to deal with the pandemic. When there was a complete lockdown, they followed a strict regimen of testing, quarantining, contact tracing and treating. This resulted in fewer cases being reported until June 15. But once the unlockdown began, it was chaos again: testing became negligible, Bihar closed its quarantine centres, people in both States started crowding paan kiosks at street corners and spitting on the road, and crowds started thronging markets. People stopped wearing masks and remembering to maintain social/physical distancing.

This resulted in a sudden spike in the number of reported cases. But the authorities in both States continued to boast about the excellent recovery and low mortality rates, attributing these to the strong natural immunity of Biharis/Jharkhandis and the benign influence of God. The ubiquitous claim is: “We are naturally gifted with a strong immunity system and God has also been kind to us.”

In Bihar, while there were 8,381 cases of infection, with 60 deaths, up to June 25, there were 12,140 cases, with 102 deaths, up to July 6. Significantly though, 9,014 patients have recovered, leaving the number of active cases to a moderate 3,028. This takes the State’s recovery rate to almost 74 per cent as against the national rate of 61 per cent. The State capital, Patna, once again, continues to be the worst affected city, with as many as 55 cases reported on July 6. So far, the State has tested 2,64,109 samples, which is too low for the State’s population.

Surprisingly, ever since the restrictions started easing, the government has shifted its focus away from corona. The people also seem to have forgotten about the precautions or social/physical distancing norms. A glaring example of this was seen on June 17 at Paliganj in Patna district where a lavish wedding left the groom dead the very next day and hundreds of guests infected. Throwing caution to the winds, more than 400 guests attended the wedding. The groom, an engineer from Gurgaon, already had high fever but nobody thought of getting him tested for COVID-19. When many guests started having symptoms, the authorities took note of that and got 400 samples tested. So far 111 persons have tested positive, and the infected include the videographer and the bandwalaahs. The district authorities say there was permission only for 50 guests.

People in Patna told this correspondent that life was back to normal in Bihar, with chaos in all public spaces including markets and roads. The onset of the monsoon has compounded the problems, with streets getting flooded, large areas being submerged, and filth and squalor floating into homes. The scare of corona has taken a back seat. The government’s focus has shifted from managing the pandemic to discussing poll preparations, which were flagged off with virtual meetings first by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and then by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself . Chief Minister Nitish Kumar holds virtual meetings with party workers almost every day.

“Bihar is having zero testing and I am afraid the State will soon have a corona explosion. Hundreds of cases are being reported every day but the government does not seem to be bothered at all. If people are recovering, they say it is owing to strong immunity; if they die, they say it is destiny. Everything here is at the mercy of God,” said Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Manoj Kumar Jha, a member of the Rajya Sabha. “The government’s priority should be saving people’s lives and improving the health infrastructure, but they are only worried about holding and winning the election,” he remarked.

Jharkhand has, except for the election preparations, almost a similar story. With the unlockdown in progress, life is back to normal with crowded markets and with people moving around without wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and following COVID-19 protocols. Even though the number of cases is rising rapidly, the recovery rate is also good, thanks mainly to the naturally strong immunity of Jharkhandis. While the State had only 2,219 cases, with 13 deaths, up to June 25, on July 6 the corresponding numbers were were 2,854 and 22. Of these, 2,068 patients have recovered, making the recovery rate an impressive 72.46 per cent, much above the national recovery rate. The State has only 766 active cases at the time of writing, making the authorities pat themselves on the back.

Government officials site the case of Simdega district to buttress their point. Simdega, one of the 20 most backward districts in the country (according to the Niti Ayog), had become one of the worst affected. It has only one private hospital, one government hospital which is always understaffed, and no ventilator. The district had only 27 cases on May 29, when its migrants workers started returning. By June 8, it had 59 cases; all but two of them were migrant workers. By June 23, it had 348 cases, 119 of them active, and one patient had died. On that day it was declared the worst-affected district in Jharkhand..

The district authorities started strict testing, quarantining and treatment, which paid off. On July 4, though the district had reported a total of 353 (all but seven were migrant workers) cases, only five were active. It had achieved a recovery rate of 99 per cent and a low mortality rate of 0.3 per cent. In the week before July 4, the district reported only two new cases. “We simply followed the protocol strictly and managed to win the first round, but we need to be vigilant,” said a senior State government official..

But now people are becoming lax and this is what is worrying. “Nobody is wearing masks, no social distancing norms are being followed. People don’t seem to be aware that a pandemic is raging,” said Subodhkant Sahay, senior Congress leader and a former Union Minister. He too attributed the impressive recovery rate to Jharkhandis’ strong immunity. “Living amidst rich natural bounty and not mixing too much with the outside world is also a factor,” he said.

But medical practitioners from Ranchi are worried about the signs of community transmission in the State. Many of them who spoke to Frontline said people without any COVID-19 symptoms and without any travel or contact history were testing positive when they sought treatment for completely different ailments. “This definitely shows we are moving towards the community transmission stage and we need to be more careful,” one of them said.

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