AS life in West Bengal limps back to normal, with the State government announcing a series of relaxations in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has warned that there is no scope for complacency or carelessness. “Those who are saying that COVID is over, I would like to tell them that diseases do not get over so soon…. This is the first phase; the second phase may very well break out soon,” she said. However, she pointed out that Bengal was doing better than the national average as far as the positivity and discharge rates were concerned. “[COVID-19] positivity rate in India is 8.53 per cent, and in Bengal it is 8.21 per cent. The discharge rate in India is 77 per cent, and in Bengal it is 86.4 per cent. Our death rate is 1.94 per cent, which we have brought down from over 9 per cent,” said Mamata Banerjee.
Her warning was also a reaction to a statement made by Dilip Ghosh, State president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He had said that “corona is gone” and that Mamata Banerjee was simply preventing the BJP from holding meetings and rallies. But the fact that there is no room for complacency is clear from the manner in which the number of cases in the State is increasing. With more than 3,200 people testing positive on a daily basis, the total number of cases crossed the two lakh mark on September 14. As of September 15, the total cumulative number of COVID-19 cases stood at 2,09,146, with 24,191 active cases. The daily number of deaths continues to remain well above 50, and a total of 4,121 people have died so far, including 59 on September 15. According to the State government, 85.7 per cent of those who died had comorbidities. Although testing in the State has picked up considerably, it is still far below the national average of 44,500. As of September 15, the State had conducted 25,62,821 tests, including 45,226 on that day itself, and the tests per million population stands at 28,476.
Metro services resume
One of the most important relaxations was the restarting of the underground Metro train service in Kolkata from September 14. The Metro, which had remained closed since March 23, is the lifeline for lakhs of commuters in Kolkata. Close to seven lakh people are estimated to use the Metro daily. While people have heaved a sigh of relief with the resumption of services, they are also aware that it will not be running anywhere close to its usual capacity (of around 3,000 passengers per train). In consultation with the State government, the Metro authorities have laid down a number of rules in order to operate safely in the pandemic situation. No more than 400 people will be allowed on a train, and passengers will have to avail themselves of e-passes and smart cards to use the services. Manoj Joshi, General Manager of the Metro, reportedly said: “We can carry about a lakh while maintaining social distancing.”
Around 20,000 people used the Metro on the first day it was reopened to the public. The well-known Kolkata-based physician Tamal Laha feels that while it is necessary to “come out of the paralysis” that society has been in, the relaxations have to be implemented with utmost caution. “The virus does not come with a deadline that it will become less virulent from a particular time. While it is necessary to try and get back to being normal, it is of paramount importance that all safety measures like wearing masks and maintaining norms of social distancing, etc., are followed. The responsibility also lies with citizens,” he said.
Archana Majumdar, Senior Chief Medical Officer in eastern and north-eastern India, is also of the opinion that there is no other option but to try and get back to normal in the given situation. “While it is a fact that more and more people are getting infected by the coronavirus, it is also true that India has the highest number of people who have recovered from the disease, and the death rate has come down from over 8 per cent to around 1.6 per cent. Mostly those patients who have comorbidities and who are not being admitted in time are succumbing to the virus. Now it is also important to look at means of reviving the economy and the socio-psychological condition of the people,” Archana Majumdar told Frontline . She pointed out that even though there was a risk of the number of cases increasing after the puja season in West Bengal, “the government of India is prepared to meet the challenge”.
However, a large number of people perceive the relaxations as an announcement to get back to life as it was before. A sizeable section of the population continues to show disregard for safety protocols and moves around without masks. Crowded marketplaces are not uncommon, with many people either not wearing masks or wearing them incorrectly. Such a cavalier attitude can also be seen in large groups of people who are going together on holidays to resorts out of town. According to Sonali Mukherjee, managing partner at Weekend Trips, a well-known tour organiser, there has already been a lot of booking for the pujas. “People are fed up of remaining indoors for so long, and now they are restless to go out. So far, all the bookings have been [for places] within West Bengal,” she told Frontline . According to her, the majority of people are travelling by car, and the hotels are strictly observing the norms of physical distancing and sanitising. The government has allowed bars and restaurants to serve alcohol, but the establishments will have to operate with 50 per cent occupancy.
In the midst of the raging pandemic, the State is gearing up for Durga puja, a four-day-long celebration of colour, sounds and crowds. Even if doctors and experts feel that relaxations are necessary risks, almost all believe that holding the Durga pujas this year is a dangerous proposition. “What great misfortune would befall [us] if for one year the pujas were not held in the State? It will not be possible to control the crowds once the festival starts, and COVID will undoubtedly spread more,” an anguished senior doctor told Frontline on condition of anonymity.
Mamata Banerjee said that one of the suggestions given by the Global Advisory Board for COVID Response Policy in West Bengal (which the State government set up in April) was that puja pandals should not be covered. “It has been suggested that they remain open because it is not safe if too many people gather in enclosed places. We have accepted their suggestion,” she said. She claimed that the board, which includes the Nobel laureate Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, had expressed its happiness at the efforts of the State government to combat the spread of COVID-19.