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Coronavirus handling: A chronology of mismanagement and cover-ups by the West Bengal government

Per all the developments so far, the state government seems to stand exposed for its callousness in handling the situation in the state and a concerted effort in covering it up

Denial cannot be the solution for all seasons. There is a স্থানকালপাত্র (place, time, subject) for everything. Denial also has a ‘sthan kaal patra’. Unfortunately, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee always remains in a denial mode. This has been her standard operating procedure ever since she was elected to the office of Chief Minister where she is constantly in election mode. When there was an outbreak of dengue in the state, her Government refused to acknowledge the existence of dengue. According to the West Bengal Government, deaths that happened were due to causes other than Coronavirus. One could understand why the denial then, as it was to cover-up the poor standard of hygiene and municipal services. But, the Coronavirus pandemic is a completely different animal. The former has a cure, the later does not. Not yet, anyway. The spread of the former can be checked, but one misstep and Coronavirus can swallow people whole. The only way to contain the outbreak of this pandemic is by breaking the chain, which is a challenging task, especially in very densely populated areas. Also, this is not a virus plaguing only West Bengal, it is a pandemic impacting our entire country and also the world.  

While in any other epidemic outbreak there may be a room for catching up, but against Covid19 there is none. In the absence of any vaccine or anti-virus treatment the only way is to help patients tie over the virus attack by support like containing the fever, provide breathing support, etc.  This time around the complete collapse in the state-run hospital infrastructure came out in the open.  The present state of rot is the result of the last 4 decades of complete neglect and politicization of health care starting under CPI(M) rule only to be perfected under the ruling TMC.  

Initially, the State Health Department designated some private hospitals also for Coronavirus treatment. Most of these designated hospitals took immediate steps to set-up a separate designated ward, with all necessary facility.  One such private hospital received 25/28 patients in this ward.  To the utter surprise of all in this hospital, all but 3 patients were overnight moved to a State Government hospital. Presumably, the Health Department did not want the numbers to come under public domain.  The 3 patients left behind as they were on ventilators and Government hospital could not accommodate.   

Videos, recorded by patients or their family members in Government hospitals, started to circulate showing the prevailing pathetic conditions. The veracity of these videos was established by the State Government themselves as a notification was issued immediately after the incident banning the carrying of mobile phones, including by the medical staff, in the Coronavirus wards in the hospitals. The real reason behind such a ban was that the government was afraid of the pathetic condition of hospital, negligence of the state government and data fudging by authorities going viral in media and on the internet.

In a shocking turn of event, Kolkata Police registered an FIR against and detained a Kolkata based Oncologist. His crime- highlighting, on social media, the lack of PPEs and other medical facilities in the hospitals of West Bengal. The FIR was registered under section 153 A of the IPC which deals with causing disharmony and feeling of hatred which disturb public tranquillity. After long detention and interrogation, the doctor was released only after using his mobile to put out two tweets, one thanking Mamata Banerjee for her speedy action and second saying his earlier tweet was wrong. Thereafter his mobile phone was confiscated. The mobile phone was handed back only after a thrashing from the Calcutta High Court and direction to the Kolkata Police to do it as the High Court found that there was no case made out against the doctor looking at his social media posts.

Now let’s understand the chronology of certain event that took place in the state of West Bengal that exposes the mismanagement of and data fudging by the Mamata Banerjee Government:

In a surprise move on 3rd April 2020, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee issued a notification taking away the power of the treating doctors, who sign the death certificates, henceforth they could only issue ‘draft’ death certificate. The final certificate would be issued by an expert committee. It leaves no one in any doubt that this unprecedented step was taken only to hide the figures & causes of deaths in the state.

On 5th April, the Chief Secretary West Bengal in a press conference stated that the Government was not concealing or fudging figures as it was not the time. This sounded like the famous Bangla saying “আমিকলাখাইনি”, where the kid says “I didn’t eat the bananas” when his mother asked, “whose in the prayer room”. Was it a clear sign of the admission of guilt?

While we all know during such an abnormal period the ‘fake news’ manufacturers are working overtime and we have to be very careful not to fall victims to those, but there have been numerous videos of people in certain areas not adhering to the lockdown, dead bodies not being removed from wards which have patients, etc. which have been directly or indirectly accepted by the administration. 

I must say since the arrival of Inter-Ministerial Central Team on 20th April, while the State Government took all possible steps to stop them and not cooperate with them. Four letters were written by the team leader, but the Chief Secretary not only did not consider the need to respond but also said in a press conference they have no time to waste and the team can enjoy their vacation. Despite this attitude of the State Government, there was a positive outcome – the rate of testing doubled and the Government increased the deceased figure albeit shrouded in comorbidity. 

On the 10th April, the Union Home Ministry warned the West Bengal Government of its willful negligence and deliberate inaction in handling the lockdown measures in specific areas of Kolkata like Rajabazar, Topsia, Metiaburz, Narkeldanga, etc. through a letter addressed to the Chief Secretary, and Director General of Police. It was clear that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was pandering to her vote bank even at this time of crisis and endangering the lives of people in the state. In fact, she went to the extent of justifying her stand by saying this is a ‘lockdown with a humane face’

On 11th April, West Bengal Doctors Forum wrote to the Chief Minister imploring her to share ‘genuine, transparent & verifiable’ data on Coronavirus and not send the wrong signal to the world. Isn’t it a matter of serious concern that the doctors in the state had to write such scathing letter to the Chief Minister?

On 13th April, Mamata Banerjee’s Government was exposed again for its apathy! ICMR’s nodal testing facility in Kolkata, the National Institute of Cholera & Enteric Diseases (NICED) claimed that “West Bengal govt is not sending enough samples for COVID19 testing.”

Next, Chief Minister was quoted in Anand Bazar Patrika, a leading Bengali daily, saying “onek howeche aar noi”.  In fact, the same paper did an editorial on the same-titled “Aar noiye”. Question is why did she have to say this?   

On 20th April, the Indian Medical Association & seven other medical organizations had to write to the Chief Minister to release ‘real-time, transparent data of COVID19 in West Bengal, including daily medical bulletins of all healthcare workers under treatment’. 

Finally, on 24th April, it was reported that after the IMCT probe, West Bengal’s Covid-19 toll had gone up nearly 4 times in 24 hours. Hence, it was clear since day one that Mamata Banerjee Government was hiding figures of COVID19 cases and also the way it mismanaged the entire situation in the state. No wonder, Chief Minister Banerjee also protested the IMCT’s visit to Kolkata when the Central Government sent it.

Per all the developments so far, the state government seems to stand exposed of its callousness in handling the situation in the state and a concerted effort in covering it up. We can only hope that the Chief Minister keeps political differences aside and come together with the central government to manage the COVID19 situation in the state. 

Today, West Bengal’s abysmal healthcare infrastructure stands exposed due to Coronavirus. What’s more- Mamata Banerjee Government’s attempts to cover it up looks all the more pathetic!

Unfortunately, in this there is no catching-up.

 

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Shishir Bajoria
Shishir Bajoria is the Chairman, Board of Governors, IIM Shillong and the Chairman of SK Bajoria Group

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