Doctors express concern on gross-under testing and misreporting of data.
One of the cardinal principles of the fight against Covid-19 worldwide is the need for transparency. Besides Testing, Tracing and Treating, Transparency is the fourth pillar which sustains the struggle against the pandemic. Both India and South Korea continue to do well in this battle primarily because their respective leaders have insisted on transparency. From the word go, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ensured that the concerned departments, ministries and institutions adhere to this principle. His vision is clear; the fight against Covid-19 has to succeed through peoples’ participation—Jan Bhagidaari—with each citizen sensing that they are part of this herculean effort at warding off the virus. With a detailed and regular briefing, continuous flow of information, this approach is evident in the manner the Modi government has approached the issue. Almost all other states have adhered to this principle of transparency. The practice of giving out the exact number of those afflicted, the actual number of those dying and the daily number of increase and of those cured are regularly and in great detail shared with the people and the media. The main purpose of this is to avoid giving rise to collective panic, allow the tracking of the state’s progress in handling the pandemic and to ensure that a collective will is sustained in wanting to overcome it. The only state government, which has resolutely refused to adhere to this principle is the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal.
The politics of pandemic now being played out in West Bengal by the ruling Trinamool Congress has the following dimensions to it: suppression of data on actual tests done, its results, actual number of those afflicted, those dead from the virus and the actual numbers of those infected in the districts, inter ministerial and departmental discrepancy in data released, deliberate laxity in enforcing lockdown in the first 21 days, especially in those areas of Kolkata and state that are minority dominated, refusal to disclose the number of those infected because of the Nizamuddin Markaz episode, refusal to ensure proper protective equipment for doctors and healthcare workers at the frontline. Such a callous attitude has led to patients being admitted to general wards and spreading the infection, unclear protocol followed on the disposal of the dead, unclear network of quarantine centres, setting up a committee of doctors who are empowered to “audit the dead”, having the sole authority to decide on whether a particular patient died of corona, preventing the dissemination of authentic information, irregularity in the distribution of ration through PDS. This has led to a number protests and clashes between people and the police across the state, and targeting of Members of Parliament from Opposition parties particularly the BJP, since it has the largest and active posse of MPs, by preventing them from moving around their constituency for relief distribution. Jalpaiguri Member of Parliament, Jayanta Roy has been forced into a false quarantine for 14 days, while the same is being attempted against Sukanta Majumdar, MP from Balurghat. Member of Parliament from Alipurduar, John Barla too, was obstructed while he was trying providing relief to his constituents, who are primarily tea garden workers. Thus, the Mamata Banerjee government is not only displaying inconsistencies in tackling the pandemic, it is also displaying a complete lack of a democratic spirit.
This week a group of “non-resident Bengali physicians, health scientists, and health care providers” from West Bengal, who are now spread across the world in leading healthcare institutions, in an open letter to Mamata Banerjee, has referred to the situation in the state as “particularly grave” and pointed at “two specific issues” that are most disturbing: “1) The gross-under testing in West Bengal, and 2) the misreporting of data on the cause of death of Covid-19 patients.” The group, which had as signatories experts from universities of California, Michigan, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and Leibniz Institute of Aging among others, clearly stated that there was “evidence that mortality data in Covid-19 patients emerging from West Bengal” were being misreported or not fully reported and that, more crucially, “deaths due to Covid-19 are being misclassified on death certificates as deaths due to a comorbid condition or organ failure…” Many recall Mamata’s approach to the dengue epidemic that had struck West Bengal in 2018 and had led to a number of deaths. A number of doctors across the state had then complained of being coerced into not citing the cause of death as dengue. Being opaque with health data is the TMC’s public health policy.
Earlier this month, Mamata Banerjee had formed, with much fanfare, a “global advisory” group headed by Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee to advise her on the pandemic. Except for one televised meeting with Prof Banerjee, there has been no meeting of the group, though a lot has been spent on publicising it. The doctors’ committee formed by her to “audit” the deaths, interestingly, does not have pulmonologists, epidemiologists and virologists, all specialist that are needed for the treatment of corona. Instead the doctor who heads it, Abhijit Chowdhury, is a hepatologist, with no known expertise in handling SARS diseases.
Mamata and her ministers have repeatedly claimed that her government has distributed over 4 lakh PPEs across the state, and yet everyday reports of doctors and nurses contracting the infection in main hospitals in the state surface and associations of doctors repeatedly express public concern and indignation at these protective equipment not reaching them. The resident doctors of the Medical College of Kolkata, have pointed at the “gross mismanagement in the handling (testing, contact tracing, etc) of Covid-19 suspected healthcare workers” and lamented that “the ratio of 3 patients to 11 HCW affected” indicated “enormous callousness on the part of the authorities to set up any form of protection, testing facilities for those of us at the highest risk.” Terming it a “suicide mission” they expressed their inability to continue working until their demands especially with regard to PPE, mass testing, quarantine and treatment were met.
The Chief Minister remains unfazed. In fact, a joint letter issued by a host of medical forums in the state with the Indian Medical Association, which has as its president Dr Santanu Sen, TMC’s Rajya Sabha MP, in the lead asked the Chief Minister to, among other things, ensure the safety and security of all frontline healthcare providers and demanded opening of more testing centres and issuing of death certificates following ICMR guidelines. The Chief Minister, who holds charge of the health department as well, has, instead of responding to these demands, blamed the Modi government and has repeatedly tried to shift attention from her own ineptitude and mismanagement.
By refusing to come clear on the impact of the Tablighi Jamaat on the spread of the virus in the state, by repeatedly naming all attempts to make her accountable on this count as “communal”, she has also furthered the agenda of her appeasement politics in this fight against corona. Unlike neighbouring Assam where the government has clearly indicated the effects of Nizamuddin on spread of the infection, Mamata continues to suppress Tablighi data. As of now she is mis-leading, mis-reporting and mis-handling West Bengal’s fight against corona.
(The writer is the Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation)