COVID-19 Update: West Bengal

Politics sans protocols in Bengal

Print edition : May 21, 2021

People wait outside a vaccination centre in Kolkata on April 28, the day before the final phase of polling in West Bengal. Photo: Arko Datto/Bloomberg

Unscrupulous politicians and a callous public exacerbate the COVID crisis in West Bengal.

The COVID-19 crisis in West Bengal was exacerbated by the prolonged Assembly election that stretched over 32 days in eight phases as unscrupulous politicians looked out only for electoral gains and irresponsible citizens adamantly refused to adhere to COVID protocols. Add to this a health-care system that has been in a shambles for decades. On April 26, the rate of the spread of the infection in the State was the highest in the country at 9.5 per cent.

On April 30, the State government issued ordered that all shopping complexes, malls, beauty parlours, cinema halls, restaurant and bars, sports complexes, gyms, spas and swimming pools shall remain closed “until further orders”. Home deliveries and online services, however, will be allowed. All “social/cultural/academic/entertainment related gatherings and congregations” are prohibited under the order, and “bazaars and hats” (weekly markets) will be allowed to remain open from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Essential services like medical shops, medical equipment shops and grocery stores will remain “outside the confines of the embargo”.

The build-up

As COVID cases rose, political parties continued with their mega election rallies, one trying to outdo the other. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were heard thanking the people for coming in tens of thousands to their political meetings, the organisation that oversees elections for the Trinamool Congress was busy pointing out that Mamata Banerjee and her nephew and heir apparent to the party leadership, Abhishek Banerjee, were drawing even larger crowds. On April 17, addressing a massive gathering in Asansol, Paschim Bardhaman, Modi expressed his delight at the turnout: “Wherever I see, I just see people.” The same day, 7,713 new COVID cases were registered in Bengal, and 24 people died. The number of daily cases increased by more than double in the next 10 days. Neither the political leaders nor the people attending the rallies paid any heed to the advice to adhere to basic COVID-19 protocols. While maintaining social distancing was impossible in such massive gatherings, there was also no mechanism to enforce the wearing of masks. There was not a single place in the State that was not covered by the star campaigners from different parties, and thousands of people attended the meetings.

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On February 26, when the election schedule was announced, the number of new daily cases was 216, and only three deaths were recorded on that day. On April 19, when the BJP finally said that it would stop big rallies, the number of new cases was 8,426, with 38 people dead. All the main political parties—the Trinamool, the BJP and the Sanyukta Morcha (the alliance of the Left, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front)—ended their mega campaigns around the same time. But by then the damage had been done. By the middle of April, the hospitals were running out of beds and medicines and there was a scarcity of oxygen and vaccines.

By the fourth week of April, there was a full-blown catastrophe, and the elections were not yet over. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s appeal to the Election Commission to hold the last three phases on a single day fell on deaf ears. On April 28, the day before the last phase of the election, the State registered its highest single-day spurt of cases for the tenth consecutive day at 17,207. The number of deaths also peaked for the third consecutive day at 77. The total number of active cases stood at 1,091,009, and the total number of deaths at 11,236. The discharge rate dropped to 85.26 per cent as against 97.14 per cent at the beginning of the month. Just a month ago, when the election began on March 27, the number of active cases was only 4,985, and the number of deaths on that day was just two.

The long-drawn election wreaked havoc on an already dangerous situation. Doctors in the State had warned the government and the Election Commission of the danger, but their words were not heeded. Punyabrata Gun, convener of the Joint Platform of Doctors, told Frontline: “From the time the election campaigns started, we have appealed to the State administration, the Election Commission, and political parties to take necessary protective steps and maintain COVID protocols. But nothing came of it.” The extent of complacency among the general public was also appalling. When cases were low, people began to drop their guard as well. They crowded the markets, refused to wear masks and behaved as though nothing serious had ever happened. Dr Tamal Laha, a Kolkata-based physician who is attached to several top private hospitals, said: “You cannot blame the State government right now. The West Bengal government has at least given an order to make 60 per cent of all hospitals beds to be made COVID beds. But what is the meaning of building up infrastructure when people themselves are still not wearing masks and are taking part in election rallies? People need to realise that they are not individually immune to the virus. Even eminent people are flouting the most basic COVID norms, so how can one blame the common people?”

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With the number of new cases increasing exponentially, there is an acute shortage of beds in both government and private hospitals. At present, 140 hospitals are dedicated to treating COVID-19 – 105 government hospitals and 35 private establishments. The State government’s website on April 28 showed the occupancy rate in COVID beds to be 45.14 per cent, but doctors are telling another story. A senior doctor in a government hospital told Frontline: “There is a terrible crisis for the beds, even though the government websites are claiming otherwise. It is very difficult for a patient now to get a bed.”

COVID POLITICS

Even as the State was reeling under COVID-19 infection, the two main contenders in the electoral battle – the BJP and the Trinamool – used the pandemic and the vaccine as political weapons against each other. In her election rallies Mamata Banerjee blamed the BJP for spreading the virus in the State by bringing in “outsiders” during its campaigns, while the saffron party pointed at the State’s failing health infrastructure and the State government’s inability to deal with the crisis. Both the Trinamool and the BJP have promised to ensure free vaccination for the people of the State if voted to power. Mamata Banerjee said that the Centre’s new vaccine policy was “anti-people” and a ploy to “shirk responsibility”. In a letter to the Prime Minister, she slammed the differential pricing of the vaccine, saying, “GOI gets vaccines from manufacturers @ Rs 150 per dose, while you have fixed for us, the States, a price of Rs.400 per dose…. This is anti-federal and anti-poor.”

As political parties exchanged barbs and tried to secure political brownie points in the midst of the pandemic, the queues outside the hospitals grew longer by the hour. Punyabrata Gun said: “The rate of transmission has to be curbed and wearing of masks must be made universally compulsory by whatever means necessary. We are demanding universal free adult vaccination so we can reduce mortality rate with the dangerous kind of Covid. There have to be more COVID wings in the hospitals.” He pointed out that unless oxygen-beds are augmented, the death count will continue to rise. “Last year the State government procured a number of HFNO [High Flow Nasal Oxygenation] machines, some of which are still lying unpacked and some need repair. These machines were also given to private hospitals which the government had taken over to tackle the COVID crisis. These HFNO machines need to be repaired and unpacked and put to use immediately,” Gun told Frontline.

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