COVID-19 Update

COVID-19 cases show no decline in Assam, political parties busy in electioneering

Print edition : October 09, 2020

There has been an alarming rise in the number of unemployed in Assam, with people forming long queues to register at employment exchanges. Here, graduates outside the employment exchange office in Rehabari, Guwahati, on August 28. Photo: PTI

A school student shows her project during an online class, in Guwahati on August 29. Schools and colleges in Assam are scheduled to reopen on September 21 for pupils of classes IX to XII. Photo: PTI

The number of cases in the State shows no signs of declining, and with political parties resuming electioneering activities and students getting ready to restart offline classes, the State’s health care infrastructure could soon be overwhelmed.

Assam is staring at a sharp rise in COVID-19 fatalities as both health care infrastructure and health care personnel are stressed to the limit. The National Health Mission, Assam, floated a tender in the last week of August for 3,000 body bags to be supplied on an “urgent basis due to COVID-19 pandemic”, which indicates the scenario that is being anticipated in the coming days.

Designated COVID-19 hospitals and care centre beds are almost saturated because of the exponential rise in positive cases. Health experts have said that home isolation could soon be the only option for a large number of patients if the pandemic curve is not flattened as most hospital beds will be filled with critical patients requiring urgent medical attention. Two cryogenic oxygen tanks with a total capacity of 40,000 litres have been installed on the Gauhati Medical College Hospital premises to ensure an uninterrupted supply of oxygen for at least 10 days.

Until September 16, the State had 29,180 active positive cases and recorded 492 fatalities. The number of fatalities of laboratory-confirmed positive cases could be higher as the State’s Death Audit Board is not counting the death of many people as caused by COVID-19 if they had comorbidities. Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that the board was ascertaining the number of COVID-19 deaths in strict adherence to the guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research. He said that if the guidelines were changed subsequently to include the positive cases where the death after recovery from COVID-19 was caused by comorbidities the death count due to COVID-19 might see an upward revision. The number of fatalities of such positive cases is estimated to be around 350.

Of the total 1,46,575 positive cases to date, 1,16,900 patients have been discharged. The positivity rate is close 7.5 per cent, and on an average over 2,500 new cases are added every day, which has led to the saturation of hospital beds despite the high discharge rate. Over 1,600 doctors and other health care personnel have been infected with the virus, which has aggravated the situation. A large number of police personnel and mediapersons have also been infected.

With schools and colleges scheduled to reopen on September 21 for pupils of classes IX to XII an increase in positive cases is likely in the coming days. The standard operating procedure that the Central government issued for the reopening of schools mentions that attendance in offline classes should be voluntary and will require consent from parents and guardians. However, schools and colleges in rural areas are likely to witness large attendance because the majority of rural students were deprived of access to online classes conducted by schools and colleges. Data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India show that rural Assam has only 27.47 Internet subscribers per 100 population against 100.97 in urban areas. The data were included in the report titled “The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators, October-December 2019” published on June 30.

With the 2021 Assembly elections less than eight months away, the State has been witnessing a surge in political activities. Non-adherence to safety protocols such as wearing face masks and maintaining a minimum physical distance has triggered apprehensions of a further deterioration in the pandemic situation. A number of legislators, leaders and workers of both ruling and opposition parties have been infected with the disease. Former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, and Topon Kumar Gogoi are among those who were admitted to hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

In most political gatherings, parties are not adhering to the restriction of only 100 attendees. Electioneering in areas under the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) has also picked up even though the Assam State Election Commission has not announced fresh dates for elections to the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), the autonomous council, under which the BTAD areas fall, set up under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Elections to the BTC, earlier scheduled for April 4, were deferred following the nationwide lockdown.

The Election Commission is exploring setting up additional polling stations for staggered polling but is yet to notify fresh election dates. The parties are anticipating that the elections might be held sometime in October-November and are trying to connect with voters through mass rallies. Campaigns are likely to be intensified, putting people in the BTAD at risk of getting infected with COVID-19, if the State Election Commission does not clarify whether the elections will be deferred further or announce fresh dates and safety protocols for campaign and voting.

The pandemic has adversely affected the State’s economy, and there has been an alarming rise in the number of unemployed, with people forming long queues to register at employment exchanges. The opposition parties have flayed the BJP-led coalition government for announcing a cash assistance of only Rs.830 a month for the 19 lakh targeted beneficiaries of a flagship scheme, Arunodoy, announced in the State budget for 2020-21. The opposition parties insist that the amount is too little and have demanded that all households outside the purview of income tax obligations be paid a monthly cash assistance of Rs.7,500 for the next few months to help tide them over the financial crisis they are facing because of the pandemic. The State government also announced Rs.2.5 lakh each for 8,000 namghars (traditional Assamese prayer houses) by October 15 for the improvement of infrastructure and directed Deputy Commissioners to select 55 beneficiary namghars in each Assembly constituency.

In April, the State government shelved its plans to construct five temporary hospitals for COVID-19 patients with a total of 1,500 beds using funds collected through donations from individuals and organisations to the Assam Arogya Nidhi account. The collection was to the tune of Rs.100 crore. The government made this decision after it evaluated that it would be able to ramp up existing facilities and incomplete infrastructure to meet its requirements. The State currently has around 600 beds and about 400 ventilators in intensive care units (ICU) in government and private hospitals. On September 10, the Health Minister expressed his helplessness and said that there could be a severe shortage of ICU beds if the present trend of the pandemic continues and infections do not decline by October.

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