COVID-19 Update

Bihar&Jharkhand: Price of apathy

Print edition : August 14, 2020

People flouting physical distancing norms as they wait for COVID-19 testing, during the total lockdown, in Patna, on July 15. Photo: PTI

At a swab sample collection centre in Patna on July 14. Photo: PTI

The government’s indifference to containment measures and to the urgent need to strengthen the public health infrastructure results in a rise in COVID-19 cases in Bihar. Jharkhand is hurriedly readying its district hospitals to deal with the crisis.

Bihar and Jharkhand seem to have failed to use the two-month-long complete lockdown to upgrade their public health infrastructure. As a result, when the two States started seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, they were unprepared for the load. Patients were turned away as hospitals had no beds; some patients, according to social media posts from Bihar, lost their lives while waiting outside hospitals; hospitals struggled to cope with the caseload in the absence of adequate resources and staff; and doctors and other health care workers themselves were afflicted by the virus.

Bihar, which has a population of 13 crore, has only one designated COVID hospital, the Nalanda Medical College and Hospital (NMCH), and a makeshift hospital at the Pataliputra Indoor stadium in Patna for the general public. The government has reserved its best hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Patna, to treat VIPs cases. Seven other government hospitals in various parts of Bihar, in collaboration with district hospitals, are now being readied for COVID treatment, but it is still a work in progress. “These hospitals are still being furnished,” said a senior Janata Dal (United) leader from Bihar.

On an average, Bihar is witnessing the addition of over 1,000 cases a day. On July 13, there were 1,432 new positive cases with Patna alone accounting for 228. On July 19, the State recorded 1,412 cases, taking the total number of positive cases to 26,379 and the cumulative death toll to 179, including two doctors. The government ordered a one-week lockdown from July 10 in Patna, which continued to be a coronavirus hotspot with 90 containment zones. But following the surge in cases in other districts, too, the government extended the lockdown across the State until July 31.

Dr Sunil Kumar Singh, senior Janata Dal (U) leader and medical practitioner, said: “Once un-lockdown began, people became careless. They did not take precautions and did not pay heed to safety measures such as wearing masks and physical distancing. It was life as usual. This led to a spurt in the number of cases. Complete lockdown is a harsh measure no doubt, but what can we do? We have to speak to them in the language they understand.”

But it is not the general public alone that showed a callous disregard for guidelines on preventive measures; even people in high office seem to have thrown caution to the winds. Chief Minister and Janata Dal(U) chief Nitish Kumar’s official residence turned into a hotspot after 60 people, including some of his close family members, tested positive on July 8. The Chief Minister tested negative.

The BJP office in Patna was declared a containment zone after 75 leaders, including State party chief Sanjay Jaiswal, general secretary (organisation) Nagendra Nath, general secretary Devesh Kumar, and vice presidents Radha Mohan Sharma and Rajesh Verma, tested positive on July 14. Jaiswal’s wife and mother have also tested positive.

The office began to bustle with activity after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah flagged off virtual meetings in June, which were seen as a bugle call for the forthcoming Assembly elections. On any given day, not fewer than 400 people gathered at the BJP office for some meeting or the other. Ashok Bhatt, the party’s State media incharge, said: “We were apprehensive, but our senior leaders apparently did not realise the gravity of the situation. Otherwise, where was the need of holding the district-level office-bearers’ meeting?”

Senior BJP and Janata Dal (U) leaders, who did not want to be named, questioned the need for starting the virtual election process. “They [the National Democratic Alliance leaders] seem to be in a hurry,” they said. (The BJP, Janata Dal (U) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) are the three NDA partners in Bihar.)

The opposition could not agree more. Manoj Kumar Jha, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) spokesman and Rajya Sabha member, said: “At a time when the entire effort should be directed towards managing the COVID situation, they have focussed their attention on election preparations. Corona cannot be fought with diverted or deflected attention. We beg the government to take everyone on board and unitedly fight the pandemic, instead of wasting time and resources on election preparations.”. RJD supremo Laloo Prasad, who is lodged in a hospital in Ranchi, Jharkhand, tweeted about the Bihar situation turning explosive.

Incidentally, Nitish Kumar has been singularly indifferent to the pandemic. For the first 80 days of the lockdown, he was not visible at all. He did not show up even once. He emerged from his house only after Amit Shah’s virtual rally and, thereafter, he busied himself with virtual meetings with his party workers. Management of COVID-19 was nowhere on the agenda. The RJD, no doubt, kept attacking the NDA government for its lax handling of the pandemic, but to no avail.

Manoj Kumar Jha said: “This has been the style of Nitish Kumar since he joined hands with BJP in this stint. Any disaster, whether it is floods or drought or now the pandemic, he thinks it will go away on its own. All his plans remain confined to files only, and once the disaster recedes, the files also go back into the cupboards. Nothing worth speaking happens for the people who have to suffer the brunt of the crises. He was under the belief that the virus will die on its own, without his government doing anything. Bihar has to suffer the consequences of his foolhardy approach which is basically no approach.”

Jharkhand, with a population of little over three crore, has just one hospital, the 991-bed Rajendra Institute of Medical Science (RIMS), to treat COVID patients. The State is slightly better off because it is not election-bound unlike its parent State. But with the preparedness to deal with the pandemic woefully inadequate and with just one COVID designated hospital, it is now becoming difficult to manage the crisis. With no beds available in the RIMS now, the government is hurriedly readying its dilapidated district hospitals to handle COVID cases, and is trying to coax private hospitals into admitting COVID patients.

Fortunately, the situation here has not gone completely out of control, but more than 100 cases are being reported every day across the State. On July 14, Jharkhand had 3,963 cumulative cases, but on July 19, the figure rose to 5,399, of which 2,656 were cured. A total of 48 people have lost their lives so far. What is worrying is that COVID warriors like doctors, nurses and policemen, are now contracting the virus. In all 66 policemen have tested positive. Another worrying fact for Jharkhand is that the recovery rate, which was more than 70 per cent in early July, dropped to 48.95 per cent in mid July.

Reverse migration

What is disconcerting is that in Bihar and Jharkhand, political masters have taken the masses for a ride with empty rhetoric. The promises made when the pandemic began and when migrant workers started returning home have remained just empty words. A reverse migration has begun with workers starting to go back to work in other States in order to feed their families. The saving grace, however, is that, although it is merely out of compulsion, those needing their services, such as factory owners, rich farmers and builders, have become more generous in their offers and are promising some semblance of security to them as well. Bihar and Jharkhand had talked about creating employment for those returning home, but except for daily wage work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, nothing else is available.

Lal Kishore Nath Shahdeo, Jharkhand Congress spokesman, said: “We have provided employment to eight lakh workers under MGNREGA, but for skilled workers we have nothing yet. They need work and are going back because their employers [in other States] are now more generous and forthcoming with offers of air tickets, social security, better facilities, and advance payments, among other things.” The Congress is a constituent of the State’s ruling alliance.

In Bihar, too, reverse migration to Punjab, Gujarat and Delhi/Gurgaon has started, for work in paddy fields, brick kilns, textile units and the construction industry.

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