Mamata faces flak over COVID crisis management, transfers Health Secretary

Published : May 12, 2020 22:02 IST

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Principal Seretary (Health) Vivek Kumar. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has transferred Principal Secretary (Health) Vivek Kumar, in the midst of the raging COVID crisis. The transfer comes amid rising criticism from the opposition and the Centre over the State’s handling of the crisis and has been perceived in political circles as a desperate move to shift the blame from the government. Vivek Kumar has been transferred to the Environment Department and N.S. Nigam has taken charge of the Health Department. Mamata Banerjee herself is the Health Minister.

In a communication to the Centre on April 30, Vivek Kumar had put the total number of COVID cases as of April 30 at 931, while the same day Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, in a press conference, gave the number as 572. This caused considerable embarrassment to the government and was also noted by the Inter-Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) that was touring the State then.

In a letter to Rajiva Sinha, one of the IMCTs had written: “The bulletin of 30.04.2020 showed ACTIVE COVID cases as 572, discharged after treatment, 139 and expired due to COVID 33, making a total of 744. In a communication to the Union Secretary (Health and Family Welfare) from the Principal Secretary (Health) on the same day, the total number of cases was indicated to be 931, leading to a discrepancy of 187 cases.” It pointed out that the government needed to be “transparent and consistent in reporting figures and not downplay the spread of the virus”.

Vivek Kumar’s transfer also brought out strong reactions from the political circles. “After the Food secretary, it is now the turn of the Health Secretary to be made the scapegoat. For all the irregularities in the distribution of ration and food, it was not the Food & Supplies Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick who was removed but the Secretary of his department. Similarly, to cover-up for the failure of the Health Minister [Mamata Banerjee], the Health Secretary was sacrificed,” said Rahul Sinha, national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Congress heavyweight from Bengal and Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, said, “At a time when people are helpless over the COVID situation in the State, the Chief Minister is reshuffling her departments. I do not know why the secretaries have been removed, but shifting the blame on to others is an old practice of the Trinamool. The health sector did not break down overnight in Bengal. You [Mamata] have been in power since 2011, and if anybody has to take responsibility for the breakdown in the health sector it is you, Chief Minister, because you are also the Health Minister of the State.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sujan Chakraborty said it was an admission of the failure of the Health Department. “But why put the blame on an officer? What was the Minister doing? …If the secretaries are being punished, why are the Ministers being spared?” he asked.

Meanwhile, the COVID outbreak in the state has assumed alarming proportions. As of May 12, 198 COVID-positive patients have died, of which, according to the government, 72 died of comorbidities. Actually, the 72 comorbidity cases were announced on April 30. Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha had stated on May 4 that the government would not be mentioning the comorbidity deaths any more as “the hospitals have been told not to report comorbidity deaths”. The total number of COVID cases stands at 2,173, with 1,363 “active” cases, and the number of people discharged is 612. The total number of samples tested, as of May 12, is 52,622.

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