A warning bell
The Covid curve doesn't seem to be flattening and with the onset of Durga Puja, there are enough reasons to worry about. Doctors warn of an imminent spike as healthcare workers are sceptical about large gatherings during Bengal's mega festival, writes Pradip Chatterjee
Bengal's biggest festival will be celebrated this year amidst tremendous anxiety and confusion coupled with a slice of suspicion in the backdrop of an unprecedented pandemic that has brought the entire world to an almost halt.
For Bengalis, Durga Puja is all about mass gatherings when they unite with their family and friends. The very thought of visiting a Puja pandal brings a smile, which is not just restricted to the Bengalis alone but people from all walks of life revel in the Durgotsav.
With the pandemic setting in, the human-to-human contact has already taken a backseat and questions remain as to how the whole festival will actually take place keeping in mind the Covid restrictions and what happens when the numbers increase after the week-long extravaganza.
It also brings under consideration as to how the entire healthcare system, which is already overburdened, will handle the spike (if any).
The state Health Department has assured that adequate infrastructure is in place and some additional steps have been taken keeping in mind the Durga Puja celebrations. However, an organisation of doctors in the city — Joint Forum of Doctors (JFD) — has written to Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee expressing its concern over a possible rise in the number of Covid cases post-Durga Puja. The JFD also pointed out that since Mahalaya and Viswakarma Puja, there has been a surge in the number as restrictions were considerably relaxed. The doctors urged the Chief Minister to stop large congregations that might eventually turn fatal.
Giving utmost importance to safety issues, the state government has already imposed certain restrictions for the Puja organisers and strict guidelines have been issued. The government is also taking all possible steps to check the human-to-human transmission. Following the Chief Minister's instructions, the state government has mandated spacious and open pandals with separate entry and exit gates. Wearing masks and using hand sanitisers are must for all visitors inside a Puja pandal. No cultural programmes will be allowed to happen this year.
However, some top health officials at Swasthya Bhawan are sceptical about to what extent these norms would be followed during the festival. There has been slackness among some in following the government guidelines. The Health Department has already instructed the districts to intensify vigil during the festival. Various district officials have been urged to create awareness regarding the safety guidelines.
In the wake of the forthcoming Durga Puja, the Health Department in the second week of October has decided to add 235 new ICU beds for Covid treatment to the existing strength of 1,243. Anticipating a further spike in infections during the festive season, it has placed an order for procuring 435 new high-flow nasal cannula oxygenation devices. According to sources in the Health department, new Covid wards will be opened in some government hospitals, including in Diamond Harbour, Baruipur and Kakdwip. To strengthen the surveillance, one medical supervisor and a protocol clinical officer will be appointed in all the districts.
Health Secretary Narayan Swaroop Nigam recently convened a meeting with district health officials to discuss the containment plan of the pandemic during the festive season. Sources said that Nigam alerted the district health officials about the impending challenge to tackle the possible surge during Durga Puja, Diwali and Chhath.
Nigam said: "We are always on alert. The entire health administration would remain operational during the Puja days to ensure that no patients face difficulties while getting admission in hospitals. We would monitor and ensure that there is no shortage of beds, telemedicine mechanism functions properly. Health department officials and staff members alike will perform their duties during the Puja days to ensure health services to all."
He also added that the number of beds and Critical Care Units (CCU) in various hospitals will be increased. He urged people to be cautious while taking part in the festival. A bulletin issued by the state Health Department on a daily basis reveals that the number of daily cases has gone up recently with figures from the districts, namely North 24-Parganas and Kolkata, causing alarm. Both the districts have consistently registered over 700 fresh cases every day till the second week of October.
One of the biggest challenges that lie before the Health Department is the spread of infection among doctors. Principal of the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital (CMCH), Dr Manju Banerjee, earlier this month, wrote to the Health department seeking immediate posting of additional doctors in the hospital.
"Presently, 26 Post-Graduate trainees including 12 faculty members have tested positive for Covid and they were either quarantined or are undergoing treatment at the hospital. The CMCH has been facing an acute shortage of doctors during the pandemic with further enhancement of 100 beds," the letter read.
The CMCH Principal requested the Health Department to deploy senior residents, with specialisation in MD (Medicine) degree preferably ex-students of the same institution to cater effective and adequate care to patients.
Dr Gopeswar Mukherjee, a renowned pathologist in the state, has appealed to the people to be cautious while going out for pandal-hopping this year. "In an ideal situation, avoiding crowded places is the best option to check the spread of the virus," Dr Mukherjee said.
Meghdutam Travels, a global travel company based in Kolkata and Montreal that has an affiliation with the Ministry of Tourism has been conducting sensitisation programmes for the last 10 years to make Durga Puja a global event. It brings international jurists from all over the world every year who visit various Puja pandals. This year, Meghdutam has decided to hold virtual judgments in the wake of the outbreak. "This year, the International Jury Award will be virtually conducted between October 18 and October 22 when experts from Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Paris, Montreal, New York and Montevideo will be judging the wonderful craftsmanship showcased at the Puja pandals," said Joydeep Mukherjee, president, Meghdutam Travels.
Dr B R Satpati, former director of health services and currently an advisor to the state Health Department said: "The state is taking adequate steps to ensure the safety of all and necessary instructions have been issued too. People have to be alert as well. Those visiting the pandals have to strictly follow the protocols. Maintaining health protocol is the only way forward."