The suppression of facts and fudging of data has become a major worry for authorities and health experts in West Bengal, which has now snowballed into a huge controversy between the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government and doctors who are whistleblowing against the state government for forcing health authorities not to declare deaths from coronavirus unless certified by a state government-nominated panel.
According to a Sunday Guardian report, the manipulation of data on coronavirus cases by the Mamata Banerjee-led 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.
The worst part is that the state government has not even responded to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the Central government’s declaration that the whole of Kolkata city and some of its districts should be declared as Coronavirus hotspots.
“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 had said in a note.
However, shockingly, the notification is of no value in Kolkata and parts of Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee-led govt disposing dead bodies
Recently, there have been reports that the cops and health workers close to Mamata Banerjee’s regime, hiding their identity, disposed of dead bodies in the dead of the night raising suspicion regarding the extent of coronavirus scare in West Bengal.
Meanwhile, young doctors have taken to social media platforms to state how the Mamata Banerjee-led government has been threatening and pushing them to sign death certificates. The junior doctors further said many hospitals in Kolkata and across the state lacked the 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.
Reportedly, there was an ugly incident in Bankura over the ‘secret’ cremation of two bodies, allegedly by the ruling party workers. A case was initiated against the local MP for protesting against the surreptitious cremations.
No social distancing norms
The policy of social distancing norms has also been casually implemented in the state. In particular, life has been near-normal in Muslim-dominated localities and questioning this indulgence of a health hazard as the home ministry in Delhi subsequently did invited charges of ‘communal’ bias.
It is believed that the state government has not treated the need to locate, test and isolate those 300 or more from West Bengal who attended the Tablighi meet as a matter of priority.
A doctor, who circulated his message through his colleagues, said he was shocked to see how a pregnant woman was handled by the Medical College in north Kolkata, despite she being a coronavirus positive patient.
“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,” said the doctor.
Shockingly, the entire news was suppressed. The authorities initially announced that 50 paramedics would be singled out even though their numbers were much higher. Later, the number was reduced to 25. After a few days, all those suspected paramedics were asked to join work back.
“We have many patients who are ill and desperate for medical care and supplies,” said a young doctor requesting anonymity.
In another case, a coronavirus infected patient was pushed into the general ward because the hospital had not develop a separate facility. At each step, the state government officials are telling doctors to fudge data on coronavirus related cases.
The doctors allege that they do not have enough protective gear. As a result, doctors, nurses and paramedics are all highly exposed to the virus. What worse is, the state government is forcing healthcare workers to do their duty.
“If this is happening in the heart of the city, you can imagine what could be happening outside Kolkata,” a doctor said. The doctor added some of the whistleblowers were reprimanded by police for warning others about the current crisis in Kolkata. Many were forced to delete their posts, the doctor revealed.
Fudging coronavirus figures to show less positive patients
The manipulation of information heralds a new stage in the state government’s response to the huge coronavirus, the doctors claim. The doctors express fear of losing their job if they reveal the real state of affairs in Bengal. 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,” said Dr Ranabir Sen, a private practitioner. Earlier, Dr Sen had said that 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,” Dr Sen added.
Low testing centres, facilities
In addition to that, there are many other problems in the state. The director of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), the primary testing facility in West Bengal, had also alleged that the institute was getting fewer samples of coronavirus 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 had alleged.
She further said NICED Kolkata had over 27,000 testing kits, enough for the whole of the 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”.
According to the state’s Health Bulletin released on 13 April, the number of persons tested for coronavirus in the state stands at 2,793. The number of tests done till 12 April according to state data was 2,523 and till 11 April was 2,286. Thus, it is only 507 samples, which is about 18% of all coronavirus 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.
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 who have expired. This makes it difficult to gauge the true scale of the infection in the state. All other states are reporting total cumulative positive cases, along with cured, death and active numbers, maintaining much better transparency. 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.
Further, the state government claimed only seven people have died from corona in the state, the number is highly contested by doctors and paramedics who claim the state government is not sharing details of those dying from coronavirus. When Coronavirus patients die in the state, the authorities are listing them under any other disease that they may be having, and not classifying them as Coronavirus deaths. Last week, a patient, named Sudipta Mukherjee, got admitted and eventually died. 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 coronavirus patient was admitted 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. It is reported that the 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 coronavirus are not being isolated soon enough.
“If you suspect coronavirus 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.
The 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. The doctors 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 coronavirus.
Propaganda by Mamata Banerjee-led government
Many in Kolkata believe 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). Interestingly, these lines are written by none other than Mamata Banerjee herself. Some of the TMC MPs, Nusrat Jahan and Mimi Chakraborty will act in the film.
Bengal – a time ticking bomb
The situation in Bengal is very grave, top health officials reported. 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.
According to the Reuters report, only 3,000 tests have been conducted in a state which has a population 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.