COVID-19 Update

West Bengal: Hospitals come under fire

Print edition : September 11, 2020

In Kolkata on July 29, when West Bengal was under lockdown. The State goes under lockdown two days every week in an attempt to check the spread of COVID-19. Photo: Bikas Das/AP

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a press conference on August 17. Photo: PTI

AS the case numbers grow in West Bengal and complaints pile up against hospitals—government ones face complaints of callousness, neglect, and inability of patients to gain admission—the administration moves to put in place new measures, but it may be too late to win back the trust of the people.

The Trinamool Congress government has announced a number of steps to bring the raging pandemic under control but has been found wanting in terms of its response on the ground. The 3,000 odd new cases every day, and the average daily COVID mortality rate of well over 50 are enough for allegations that the government is struggling to handle the situation.

An important step the government has taken is to establish a COVID Patient Management System (CPMS) for hospitals. This system is aimed at facilitating admission of patients, providing information on facilities available, and updating family members of the patient’s condition. Announcing the establishment of this new system on August 17 at a press conference, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said: “Our COVID-19 health-care system is good and this new mechanism is unique. It is one of the biggest steps of the government.” The facility can be accessed through the State government health portal—www.wbhealth.gov.in.

The CPMS comes in the backdrop of allegations that hospitals were turning patients away and that once they were admitted, family members were not able to find out how they was doing. According to Rajiva Sinha, the new system would also “help ensure transparency”. As of August 18, the CPMS was in place with respect to three COVID hospitals in Kolkata. It was announced that by the fourth week of August, 84 more hospitals would be brought under its purview. The State government also announced that oxygen support would be available in all the 11,775 COVID beds in the State.

Talking about some of the steps taken by the government, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at a press conference on August 17: “We have set up a plasma bank, a monitoring cell, and we have joined hands with Calcutta University for the purpose of medical counselling. Apart from this, in every district we have deployed 1,500 of our COVID warriors—including those who have recovered from COVID – and they are of great help. We have a cord blood bank, which is not there in many parts of Asia…. Many of our doctors, including some who have retired, are touring the districts…. Our health workers, municipality workers and police are going from house to house every day to help people with their problems. We are trying in different ways to ensure that people remain safe and healthy.”

The State has also stepped up its COVID testing, with well over 30,000 samples being tested every day from the second week of August. Until July 31, this number was below 20,000 a day. As of August 18, as many as 13,32,198 samples had been tested, including 35,107 on August 18 alone. The rate of testing in West Bengal stood at 15,358 per million of the population. Around 80 per cent of the tests are the RT-PCR test, while 20 per cent are rapid antigen tests. Between August 11 and 18 the State added seven more laboratories that test for COVID-19, bringing up the total number of such laboratories to 68.

There are at present 84 COVID hospitals (29 government hospitals and 55 private hospitals requisitioned by the government) in West Bengal, with 11,775 beds. According to the government, the occupancy rate in the COVID beds is a mere 36.82 per cent (as of August 18). Mamata Banerjee claimed that only 5 per cent of those infected were “serious cases that required hospitalisation”, and 89 per cent of the patients were recovering at home. The discharge rate, as of August 18, stood at 75.51 per cent, with 92,677 so far discharged. According to the State government, the mortality rate has come down to 2 per cent from 4.5 per cent.

However, the number of COVID cases has been increasing at an alarming rate, and the number of people dying every day is also very high. As of August 18, the total number of COVID cases in Bengal stood at 1,22,753, including 27,668 active cases. On August 18 itself, 3,175 new cases were registered. The total number of deaths due to COVID stood at 2,583 on August 18, including 55 deaths on that day. .

Moreover, there have been numerous allegations of patients being denied admission and treatment in government hospitals; of treatment being delayed either because of callousness or because of elaborate procedures that patients find confusing; and lack of facilities and poor conditions inside government establishments.

On August 11, a COVID patient under treatment in a government hospital in Howrah managed to send a video message outside, pleading for help. Gasping for breath and in obvious physical distress, she said, “The people in the hospital are not doing anything for us. Please share this video and let the media know what is happening here.” The video went viral, prompting government authorities to finally visit the hospital. The hospital authorities denied any instance of negligence on their part.

More recently, on August 18, the day after the CPMS was officially launched, distraught family members of an 80-year-old COVID patient, who had been admitted in the Calcutta Medical College on July 31, complained that they had no idea about the condition or even whereabouts of the patient. One of them said: “They are not telling us anything. Not even the bed number. We have been going from one department to another from morning till evening. There is absolutely no news of her.”

This was not the first such instance in the State. Commenting on the incident, Archana Majumdar, Senior Chief Medical Officer in eastern and north-eastern India, told Frontline that such incidents made it clear that there was no coordination between the different wings of the hospital and between the hospital authorities and the patients’ families.

The situation in government hospitals has been forcing common people to get admitted in private nursing homes, which is financially unaffordable for poor and most middle-class patients. The State government claims that it is providing “free treatment” for COVID patients in public hospitals and private establishments requisitioned by the government. But Archana Majumdar pointed out that the majority of those who got admission in government-requisitioned hospitals were VIP patients or those with high-placed connections. “The poor people are helpless and it is the failure of the State government that it has not been able to provide service to them. They continue to be harassed,” she told Frontline. According to reports, private hospitals in Kolkata are charging anywhere between Rs.50,000 and Rs.1 lakh a day. There have been complaints of private hospitals demanding as much as Rs.3 lakh as deposit for admission. Recently, a well-known private hospital in Kolkata reportedly charged a COVID patient Rs.19 lakh.

Amid public outcry over inflated hospital bills, the West Bengal Clinical Establishment Regulatory Commission put a cap on the advance that hospitals could charge. Earlier, the State government had fixed a uniform rate on COVID tests. However, Archana Majumdar feels these steps are not likely to make any difference. “These are just advisories, but no private hospital is actually paying any heed to them,” she said.

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