Kolkata: Large sections of doctors and frontline health workers in West Bengal have been aggrieved in recent times because of, as many of them put it, visible slackness in the management of the Covid-19 third wave. From their first-hand experience, doctors and health workers have turned to the view that the state has almost reached the peak of the third wave, notwithstanding the qualitative difference in the virus' virulence from the previous two waves.
The gist of the several doctors and civil society members Newsclick spoke to was that they think populism is being preferred to "hard, cold, scientific logic" in devising strategies to combat the situation despite the surge in the number of infected persons over the last ten days.
This assessment and reaction, at the moment, borders on "passionate displeasure" for several reasons. First, West Bengal was listed by the Union Health Ministry among the eight emerging states of concern by January 5 as infections were fast increasing and positivity rates were seeing sharp jumps; the culprit being the hyper-transmissible Omicron variant.
Secondly, the caution sounded, and the action points suggested by the Joint Platform of Doctors, West Bengal, in its communications to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who helms the health department, have hardly been considered. The last letter was sent to the chief minister on January 4, and it is yet to elicit a response. The platform's constituents include the Association of Health Service Doctors, West Bengal Doctors' Forum, Health Service Association, Shramajibi Health Initiative, and Doctors For Democracy
In formulating strategies, Nabanna's preference appears to be depending on bureaucrats. The public health experts and professionals with domain knowledge do not have any say.
Thirdly, instead of imposing the strictest restrictions on festivities and occasions that attract large-scale participation, the state government has been generous on occasions such as Durga Puja, Kalipuja / Diwali, Chhat, Christmas, and New Year. Advisories were, no doubt, issued, but it has been an apology for enforcement. The latest example of the state's extremely liberal stance is the ongoing Gangasagar Mela, which will be over with the holy dip in the Ganga on early Friday morning.
Cases were accelerating fast between end-December and early January in Kolkata city, and Howrah, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Paschim Bardhaman, and Birbhum districts. Now, additions to the list include Malda, Hooghly, Purba Bardhaman, Bankura, Purulia, and Darjeeling districts.
While figures do see variation, recently, fresh infections in Kolkata were 41% or nearly half of the state-wide total of around 7,500. The positivity rate of infections in the state at one point was the country's highest at 55%. The new infection count rose from about 3,800 during the week ending December 29 to almost 32,000 the following week.
In the communication dated January 4, conveners of the Joint Platform of Doctor, Dr Hiralal Konar and Dr Punyabrata Gun, demanded that Covid-19 tests be conducted on a much larger scale now to detect infected persons. They urged the government to again "take over" the private hospitals that were earmarked for treatment of the disease last year and restart covid wards that were opened in government hospitals last year and subsequently closed down.
In the specific context of the Gangasagar Mela, in which people come from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and some other states to participate, Dr Konar and Dr Gun told the chief minister that in the event of infections spreading in the country because of this event, the state government would be blamed and held responsible.
Dr Subhamoy Das, whose functional jurisdiction is the Jhanjra coal mine area, a short distance away from Durgapur in Paschim Bardhaman district, told NewsClick that the infection rate in the district had lately seen a noticeable increase, and this can be traced to people's reluctance to get tested. "There is a need to be more strict about testing, but also there is no denying that a sense of fear continues to grip people, he said. "Much to our relief, the fatality rate is low, and a few people who had tested positive and died also had kidney-related ailments, diabetes, and even cancer," Dr Das said, adding, "There is a simultaneous need for continuing the vaccination drive. Immunity has grown because of the efforts in the last five-six months." He said that occasions that drew large crowds should strictly be avoided.
Professor and head of surgery department in the College of Medicine and Sagar Dutta Hospital at Kamarhati in North 24 Parganas district, Dr Manas Gumta told NewsClick that the fast pace of infection in recent days "makes me think that what we are seeing has community character". This is because there are reasons to suspect that actual infection and positivity rate may be much higher than being reported, he claimed.
Moreover, Containment zones are being hastily created without supporting infrastructure, the senior doctor noted. "The period till end-January is critical; if we can step up surveillance and augment treatment facilities, we may have reasons to heave a sigh of relief by mid-February," Dr Gumta said.
Prof Parthib Basu, who teaches Zoology at the Ballygunge campus of Calcutta University, minced no words telling NewsClick that the authorities were responsible to a great extent for the anxiety-causing situation. He said that their tendency was to be populist when circumstances warranted "hard, cold, scientific logic" in devising measures to tackle as sensitive an issue as public health, and that should be done with the help of professionals and public health experts. "The gatherings at festivities and poll campaign meetings were just not warranted. But these were allowed to happen," he said. Prof Basu blamed the authorities for their shortsightedness in giving the lowest priority to reopening educational institutions when matters improved and restrictions were relaxed. With such an approach, they have caused immense harm to the cause of education, according to him.
Surjakanta Mishra, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who was the health minister during the Left Front regime and is himself an MBBS, told NewsClick, "The state government was just not ready when circumstances had warranted readiness to implement a plan of action on an emergency basis. Adequate arrangements for substantially increasing testing are still not in place. In this respect, the government has to have facilities for going beyond RT-PCR wherever necessary and build up the capacity to tackle new variants. Once again, vaccination has to be intensified."
Asked whether the slackness noticed in handling the crisis was the result of CM Mamata Banerjee sparing more time for politics, Mishra said, "I was the health minister, also in charge of the panchayats department. I know what it means to run the health department. I had asked her during her first term why she had chosen to keep the health department under her direct control. As chief minister, she has several other subjects under her direct control. Work is bound to suffer."
About her visits to other states as she wants the Trinamool Congress to acquire toehold in those states, and thus, aid her ambition for a visible role in national politics, Mishra said, "I have brought the issue in the public domain by asking her whether her mission is to consolidate anti-Bharatiya Janata Party votes, as she has been repeatedly suggesting, or is it to really to split the anti-BJP votes," the CPI(M) leader said.