COVID-19 update

West Bengal: Restrained Durga Puja celebrations

Print edition : November 20, 2020

Outside a Durga Puja venue in Kolkata on October 25. Photo: Bikas Das/AP

Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal were pronouncedly muted this year, giving doctors hope that the increase in the number of COVID cases in the days to come will not be as much as they had feared earlier.

The five-day long Durga Puja, West Bengal’s biggest festival, was celebrated across the State even as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage. Although the celebrations were pronouncedly muted than in previous years, doctors believe that there will be an increase in the number of cases in the days to come, although hopefully not as much as they had feared earlier. Doctors’ organisations had written to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Chief Secretary warning them of the strong possibility of a huge spike in the number of cases once the celebrations were over.

The crowds were less during the puja days also because of the intervention of the Calcutta High Court, which, days before the Puja began, ordered that no visitors would be allowed inside the Puja pandals.

Punyabrata Gun, convener of West Bengal Doctors’ Forum, speaking to Frontline, said: “This year there were definitely fewer people on the streets compared with other years…. Because the numbers were less than what we initially thought they would be, the spike in the number of cases after the festivities is not expected to be as much as we had feared earlier.”
Also read: How Covid went out of control in Bengal

On October 16, the Joint Platform of Doctors, West Bengal, posted an open letter on social media, stating, “We had at first written to the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary and then to all political parties warning them that if the celebrations during the Durga Puja are not controlled, then post-Pujas there may be a tremendous rise in coronavirus cases and deaths.”

The High Court order kept the pandals out of bounds for visitors but that did not prevent people from crowding the streets and queuing up outside pandals. Even if the puja committees could enforce the rules inside their own pandals and the police could ensure that the High Court order was being followed, there was no way of controlling people walking in the streets amid the lights and colours. Exhausted parents and children trudged late into the night as if in a daze, oblivious to the fact that their masks had slipped below their chins and seemingly blissfully unaware of a pandemic raging around them.

Worsening air quality

Moreover, with the air quality worsening in Kolkata—having crossed the 200 mark in the Air Quality Index on October 28—doctors believe that patients with pre-existing lung conditions will be in more danger. Fuad Halim, a Kolkata-based doctor, told Frontline, “The bad air quality will exacerbate the condition of those with weak lungs, and the situation will get particularly serious for them if they should contract coronavirus also.”

According to doctors, the number of cases in the State has been increasing from after Mahalaya and Vishwakarma Puja (on September 17), which announces the beginning of the festival season. Frantic shoppers wanting to avail of the Puja sales flocked to retail stores and malls ignoring social distancing and other COVID protocols, and as sales soared, so did the number of people testing positive. On September 17, the number of new cases recorded was 3,197, and by October 20, the number of people testing positive per day had crossed 4,000. The average daily death count hovered at a little over 60.

With the spread of coronavirus showing no signs of being contained, doctors have time and again voiced their concern that given the health infrastructure in the State, a spike in the number of cases would be disastrous at this point of time. While electoral compulsions brought about by the approach of the Assembly elections in 2021 prevented the State government from curbing the celebrations (it had even extended Rs.50,000 to each of the 37,000 Puja committees in the State), it nevertheless prepared itself for a surge by taking measures to augment the number of COVID beds in hospitals.
Also read: What the numbers hide in West Bengal

On October 20, two days before the five-day long Durga Puja, the government announced that it would augment the COVID bed capacity in government hospitals by 2,174, including 1,639 new COVID beds and 535 new beds in Intensive Care Units (ICU). The government also announced that private hospitals would be increasing their COVID beds by a few hundred.

At present the total number of beds earmarked for COVID-19 patients in both government and government-requisitioned private hospitals is 12,751. The total number of ICU and HDU (High Dependency Unit) beds in COVID hospitals is 1,809, and the number of ventilators in COVID hospitals is 1,090. The occupancy rate of COVID beds in government hospitals, as of October 27, stood at 35.63 per cent. The number of hospitals dedicated for treating COVID-19 at present is 93, including 38 government hospitals and 55 private medical establishments requisitioned by the government.

As of October 27, the total number of people who tested positive for coronavirus in the State stood at 3,57,779, including 37,154 active cases. The number of new cases dropped to 3,957 on October 27, from the previous day’s 4,121, and the total number of people who had died of COVID stood at 6,662, including 58 people who died on October 27. The discharge rate in the State was comparatively high at 87.76 per cent, with a total of 3,17,920 people discharged. However, the rate of testing remained relatively low, with a total of 43,82,678 tests done as of October 27, including 42,108 tests carried out on that day. The rate of testing per million population stood at 42,108.

The highest number of new cases in the State has been from Kolkata (884), followed by North 24 Parganas (875), South 24 Parganas (249), Paschim Medinipur (182), Hooghly (174), Nadia (171), Purba Medinipur (160), Howrah (151) and Darjeeling (132) on that day. The maximum number of deaths have taken place in Kolkata (14) and North 24 Parganas (11).
Also read: West Bengal: Politics amid pandemic

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