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Bengal sitting on a coronavirus time bomb
Shantanu Guha Ray
Published : April 18, 2020
Doctors complain that state authorities’ approval is needed for each Covid-19 test, and is regularly refused. As a result, patients suspected to be suffering from Covid-19 are not being isolated soon enough.
New Delhi : Serious differences have emerged in Kolkata and parts of West Bengal over the way the state government is reportedly suppressing facts relating to people affected by the deadly coronavirus. The crisis has snowballed into a huge controversy between the Bengal government—ruled by the Trinamool Congress—and doctors who are now taking to social media platforms to highlight what they claim is the handiwork of the state censors who have clamped down on doctors and asked them not to declare deaths from coronavirus unless certified by a state government-nominated panel.
The move of the state government, expectedly, has come under fire from officials of the Kolkata-wing of the Indian Council of Medical Research, who have blamed the TMC-led government for slowing down the mandatory tests related to the deadly virus. Worse, the state government did not respond even after the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the Central government declared the whole of Kolkata city and some of its districts as hotspots (areas of possible concentration of coronavirus patients). “It is requested that the states should utilise the extended lockdown period to the maximum extent to convert the hotspots (identified by the red colour) to orange and green zones,” a senior official of the ministry said in a note. But, sadly, it is not working in Kolkata and parts of Bengal.
Recently, television news channels have shown videos, claiming bodies being disposed of by cops and health workers in the dead of the night; young doctors—hiding their identity—have taken to social media platforms to say how they were pushed to sign death certificates by their seniors. The junior doctors further said many hospitals in Kolkata and across the state lacked proper gear to handle such patients and the levels of infection were high and spreading fast because there were large-scale violations across the city and the state. “We have many patients who are ill and desperate for medical care and supplies,” said a young doctor requesting anonymity.
Another doctor, who circulated his message through his colleagues, said he was aghast to see how a pregnant woman, who was declared Covid-positive, was handled by the Medical College in north Kolkata: “She was in the labour room and eventually had a caesarean operation. She came in contact with over 50 nurses, doctors and paramedics. The labour room is overcrowded, each bed has three patients. So the woman would have infected many who came in her contact. Once it was known that she came from Eden Hospital (in the Medical College) on College Street, the state government officials sealed the Eden Hospital. The entire news was suppressed. First, it was announced 50 paramedics will be isolated even though their numbers were much higher. Then, the number was reduced to 25. And then, all those paramedics were sent back to work. In another case, a Corona-infected patient was pushed into the general ward because the hospital had not developed a Covid ward. At each step, the state government officials are telling us to hush up figures. We do not have enough protective gear. As a result, doctors, nurses and paramedics are all highly exposed to the virus. Worse, they are being told to do their duty, they are not being medically checked. If this is happening in the heart of the city, you can imagine what could be happening outside Kolkata.”
The doctor said some of the whistleblowers were reprimanded by police for warning others about the current crisis in Kolkata. Many were forced to delete their posts. This chokehold on information heralds a new stage in the state government’s response to the huge coronavirus, many doctors claim. They say they cannot disclose their names in the fear of losing their jobs.
The doctors say the official tally of infected patients is far lower than the true scale of the outbreak across the state. “I have a feeling that the state government is telling us that the discussions online are entering into the zone of perceived sensitivity for the state,” says Dr Ranabir Sen, a private practitioner. Dr Sen said earlier, uninhibited reporting provided valuable public knowledge about the outbreak. “It is very clear to us we need more supplies and more diagnostic equipment. So let’s get those so that we can all work better. We need to save Bengal from a bigger crisis and the state government needs to realise it fast. There is a benefit of allowing social media critique. You get to know what is wrong and what is right. But in this state that is also getting slimmer.”
There are other problems in the state. The director of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), the primary testing facility in West Bengal, said his institute was getting fewer samples of Covid-19 to test than it was getting in the initial days of the outbreak. “We are all waiting here to do the tests but the samples are not coming. It dropped to 20 last week. During the initial days of the outbreak, we got about 90-100 samples to test. We really do not know what is happening,” NICED Director Shanta Dutta told this reporter in a telephonic interview. She further said NICED Kolkata had over 27,000 testing kits, enough for the whole of eastern region, but the decision to send the number of samples to a particular laboratory is taken by the West Bengal government. She said she was surprised at the recent comments of the state government blaming the Centre for a “shortage of kits”. Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, on 11 April, told reporters in Kolkata that the city had only 40 testing kits. “We are waiting with the kits, we really do not know what is happening,” said Dutta.
According to the state’s Health Bulletin released on 13 April, the number of persons tested for Covid-19 in the state stands at 2,793. The number of tests done till 12 April as per the state bulletin was 2,523 and till 11April was 2,286. Thus 507 samples, which is about 18% of all Covid-19 samples tested in the state, have been carried out since 12 April. The number of testing centres in the state has increased to seven, which include five government facilities and two private. NICED has given about 7,500 testing kits to the West Bengal government. The total number of active cases in Bengal till 12 April was 110. Now, instead of giving the total number of infections in West Bengal, the state health department has been giving active cases in the state, which exclude those who have recovered from the viral infection or have expired. The number of 15 active infections in a day is the highest in the state so far. 270 samples were tested in two weeks until 15 April, which was also one of the highest in the state so far.
This is not all. The state government says seven people have died from corona in the state, the number hotly contested by doctors and paramedics who claim the state government is not sharing details of those dying from coronavirus.
“What is this hush-hush business?” asked Dr Archana Majumdar, a top health officer in the state who said she was aghast at the looming crisis. “Let me cite one example. It happened this week at one of the hospitals. A patient, named Sudipta Mukherjee, got admitted and eventually died around 1004 hours. She was 43 years old and her body was sent out of the hospital as a Hepatitis B case. Another patient, suspected to be a Covid-19 carrier, came into the hospital. Nurses and paramedics refused to touch her, saying they do not have any protective gear. Eventually, one gear was organised and the patient was asked to put on the gear and was sent to the general ward. Why is it we are not sending patients to the wards identified for positive corona cases and suspected corona cases?” asked Dr Majumdar.
She said she was seeing these restrictions being accompanied by intensified propaganda. The message being: We get that this is a grave problem, and we are fixing it. “Actually, state government officials are working overtime to hide the severity of the disease.”
Doctors complain that state authorities’ approval is needed for each test, and is regularly refused. As a result, patients suspected to be suffering from Covid-19 are not being isolated soon enough.
“If you suspect Covid and send the samples, they are routinely refused, there are times when the report returns after five days,” said Dr Arjun Dasgupta from the West Bengal Doctors Forum, which represents 19,000 doctors.
Worse, services in at least four major government hospitals and two private facilities in Kolkata have been hit after doctors and nurses came into contact with patients who later tested positive.
And then, there are doctors who are unanimous that coronavirus deaths are not being fully reported, with only a state-appointed committee allowed to declare if a patient has died from Covid-19.
Dr Sujan Chakraborty, a CPM legislator and a trained biomedical scientist, took to Facebook to highlight how the health officials of the state did not list all the seven patients who died after being declared Covid-19. “The list shows only two, what happened to the rest? Why not mention them in the list. Why fudge numbers?” asked Dr Chakraborty.
Many in Kolkata say the state government is working to re-establish control over the narrative by releasing expensive advertisements to news channels; filmmakers have been encouraged to make films to highlight the state’s government’s coronavirus-related health operations. Arindam Sil, a top filmmaker, has started directing a movie, titled Ek Din Jhor Theme Jabe (One day the Storm will End). The lines, interestingly, are from a poem penned by Mamata Banerjee herself. Some of the TMC MPs, Nursat Jahan and Mimi Chakraborty, will act in the film. But in reality movies—claim critics—will not work. Worse, the fact that authorities in Bengal are slowing down the detection of coronavirus cases with a cumbersome, bureaucratic testing process is, in turn, putting health workers at risk.
The situation in Bengal is very grave, top health officials told this reporter. “Besides Kolkata, the districts of Midnapur, North and South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” said Abishkar, a social worker who has been travelling across the state with relief material. Reuters said in a report that at around 3,000 tests for more than 90 million people, West Bengal has done just 33.7 tests per million, compared to a national average of around 156.9 per million, and 442 per million in Rajasthan.
“Take a look at what happened at the Howrah hospital where 17 nurses and four doctors tested positive only because they had no protective gear. As a result, the whole hospital was shut down. If you are having such a crisis in Kolkata, then you can easily realise what is the case in the districts where the hospitals are totally ill-equipped to handle such crises. Worse, members of a particular community are just not following health warnings and are congregating for prayers and routinely visiting crowded markets without any protective gear. The cops are unable to control them,” alleged Abishkar.
“There are places where the medical centres have no doctors, no nurses, no paramedics. This is a very dangerous situation. The doctors are flatly refusing to work saying they are at risk without the protective gear. In many places across the state, riots have broken out over distribution of food through the public distribution system (PDS). The situation needs to change. All I hope is that the people have the right to hold the government accountable rather than to be managed. I want everything to become better in Bengal,” added Abishkar.
Worried about the situation over the food distribution crisis, the state government—through a recent order —sent Manoj Agarwal, Principal Secretary, Food & Supplies, on compulsory waiting till further orders. The state government also transferred the district magistrates of Darjeeling, and West Burdwan after similar incidents were reported.