Ever since the COVID-19 crisis acquired a serious dimension, many of the discussions and efforts have been on a unified, coordinated strategy against the pandemic and much of the political scoring has been left for another day.
There have been a few exceptions here and there. One of the exceptions, unfortunately, has been the Bengal unit of the ‘world’s largest political party’. They have continued a series of attacks on the Bengal government, based on fake news and rumours. Senior leaders and ministers in Delhi have not joined in. Have they blessed this disappointing and irresponsible campaign? You decide.
We in Bengal are too busy to care and are carrying on with our work. It is this work that has ensured Bengal’s COVID-19 numbers are better than most other states. We have worked hard and prepared hard to keep these numbers low. There’s still work to be done and there is no room for complacency. Nevertheless, the rumours and mischief have to be responded to – with facts, figures and public health logic.
Overall there are four charges the political riff-raff have flung at Bengal:
– The state government woke up late to the challenge of COVID-19
– Bengal is unprepared for a potential massive outbreak
– There is not enough testing of suspected patients
– COVID-19 related deaths are being hidden in Bengal
So let’s take on these charges, one by one.
Did Bengal wake up late? In reality, we were urging steps on the COVID-19 front well before the Centre got into the act. On March 6, a full week before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Mamata Banerjee held a press conference and announced the setting up of quick response teams. She even asked for travel restrictions at international checkpoints, crucial for Bengal, which touches three neighbouring countries and has numerous land border crossings. The Bengal government also set up isolation wards in all major hospitals in every district.
While such determination was being shown in Kolkata, the government of India was not taking this threat seriously. Their focus was on toppling a government in Madhya Pradesh. We raised the issue of the impact of novel Coronavirus in parliament as early as March 5. A few days later, I submitted a Zero Hour notice in the Rajya Sabha, seeking permission to demonstrate the 20-second handwash technique that doctors were recommending. My request was denied. Then, again in mid-March, as a precautionary measure, a few of my colleagues and I wore masks in parliament. This was mocked as a “gimmick”.
Meanwhile in Bengal, we continued to build capacity, and did not wait for the problem to arrive. In the month of March itself, the state government set up 582 Institutional Quarantine Centres. Proactive steps were taken to identify and isolate at-risk people at an early stage. This slowed the spread of infection.
The focus in Bengal has been on testing, isolation and treatment besides the humanitarian handling of the lockdown to ensure the economy is not permanently damaged. To date, over 68,000 people have been kept in quarantine. This includes those kept in home, hospital and institutional quarantine (we prefer the term safe homes). These 68,000 people either flew in from affected countries or came into contact with COVID-19 positive patients.
Now we come to point three – testing. The states were told they could not order testing kits on their own. Only the Indian Council of Medical Research, under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, could import and dispatch kits to states. In the initial days, kits were in short supply and ICMR prioritised the worst-affected states. Bengal was not among the worst-affected because it had done its homework. That is why it did not receive testing kits. And that is why certain other states have higher testing numbers. Bengal was disadvantaged because of its preparedness!
Subsequently, the central government ordered seven million testing kits from abroad. Only now have they begun to arrive in the country. Because of the delay in ordering and procurement, the Centre has been unable to supply the states. Till March 31, guess how many testing kits Bengal had received? Just 40.
Another issue that slowed down the testing process was that ICMR issued very stringent guidelines allowing testing of only symptomatic patients. This limited the testing pool. Much later, the guidelines were changed to include asymptomatic patients. But Bengal used the lockdown period – and the ICMR-enforced limited-testing period – to equip itself. More testing facilities were opened and more lab technicians and clinical staff were trained. From an initial two, the number of Centre-approved testing labs in Bengal has risen to seven.
Finally, we come to the number of cases and deaths. There is total transparency in Bengal on COVID-19 information. From organizational structure to best practices, everything is in the public domain. It is true that an expert committee has been set up to determine the exact cause of a patient’s death, whether it can be attributed to COVID-19 or not. It is important to note that this expert committee consists of doctors, not politicians or bureaucrats. It is a technical committee and has been set up in keeping with the established principle of ascertaining co-morbidity. This is standard practice in an epidemic and used to generate accurate fatality rates. Only an expert committee of doctors can do this, only they can decide if a patient has died of COVID-19 or some other underlying condition. Not taking into account co-morbid diseases can skew medical statistics. It can lead to misleading mortality rates in a general population, and misleading fatality rates for an individual disease.
Let me explain with an example from another state – Haryana. About a week ago, an elderly Italian tourist who had tested positive for COVID-19 died in a hospital in Gurugram. State health officials said she had recovered from COVID-19 and actually died of a heart attack. The health officials and doctors are the specialists. I believe them. If one can believe them in BJP-ruled Haryana, why not in Trinamool-ruled Bengal?
[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Friday, April 17, 2020]