Bengal fights Coronavirus
A graded assessment of West Bengal’s bitter struggle to contain the COVID-19 as various factors threaten to complicate such efforts
West Bengal, one of the densely populated states of India, with nearly 100 million population and population to land share ratio of 2.8, is fighting to combat COVID-19. The battle against such a serious crisis has to be fought on multiple fronts with clear strategic visions. The ideal objectives should be to (i) halt the spread of disease; (ii) minimise case fatality rate (CFR); (iii) starvation deaths do not occur by ensuring proper food distribution; (iv) guest migrant workers who have migrated to West Bengal are safe and secure and, if they desire to leave, arrange for their return back home in a dignified manner with proper transport and safety gears; (v) arrange for the return in a planned way of those originally from West Bengal, who had migrated to other states; (vi) extend financial support and offer viable job opportunities to everyone willing to work; (vii) counter constant propaganda by communal forces and a section of the Central government departments; (viii) arrange for fund to run the operational and budgetary expenses in the face of non-cooperation from the central government; (ix) ensure existing health care system remains resilient in the face of the extreme challenges posed by the pandemic; (x) minimise cost of treating Coronavirus infected persons by offering the required medical services to non-Coronavirus patients.
As it is difficult, rather impossible, to make primary survey during the lockdown period, an attempt has been made here to evaluate these 10 strategic parameters to assess the performance of West Bengal in its fight against the Coronavirus.
(i) After few initial hitches due to the non-availability of test kits and proper medical gears, including personal protection equipment and masks, for the health care service providers, Bengal has been able to keep the spread of the virus limited to a few districts through a planned lockdown and area-specific containment strategy. Police, municipalities, and health department have worked in tandem to implement physical distancing with a human face. This strategy has resulted in a steady decline of the positive cases to total test ratio from a high level of more than 5 per cent to 3.11 per cent (against the national average of 4.24 per cent) at the end of the Lockdown 3.0.
(ii) CFR in Bengal is still very high, though it has declined from a high rate of 10.54 per cent on May 4 to 8.89 per cent on May 17. There could be two possible reasons for high CFR. One, Bengal has been infected by a relatively more dangerous strain A2A which has devastated Europe. The European connection of the first few infected cases in Kolkata might have brought this strain into Bengal. Second, delayed arrivals of test kits adversely affected the treatment of infected patients in the initial stages, which aggravated the crisis.
(iii) On March 21, Bengal government announced free ration, till September 2020 — 5 kg food grain per head per month for the 7.9 crore people who used to get subsidised ration through the public distribution system. Later this programme was extended to cover all citizens of the state. Temporary ration cards have been issued to the non-card holders. Though the scheme initially encountered some problems in managing the distribution by using the existing infrastructure, the situation has improved over time. Stringent administrative and political measures were taken to ensure that the food grains reach the intended beneficiaries without undue delay. In addition, the daily wage earners, labourers, and workers of the State are entitled to receive Rs 1,000 during the lockdown period.
(iv) According to a statement issued by the Chief Minister, over 2 lakh migrant labourers and stranded people from 16 Indian states are being housed in 711 camps across the state. "They are being directly taken care of by state government along with a few NGOs. This arrangement started since 1st April will continue until the need remains", she said.
(v) In a letter, dated March 26, the WB CM had appealed to 18 CMs to take care of labourers from Bengal who were stranded in their states owing to the 21-day lockdown declared by the Centre. This was followed by lists of areas where workers from Bengal were camping in their states of domicile. A group of young volunteers tracked the migrants using social media networks and constantly provided the state government with updated data on the plight of thousands of migrants. The stranded migrants are now being brought back by the state government to their respective homes. All expenses towards travel, foods, quarantine and personal safety gears are being borne by the Government of West Bengal.
(vi) In addition to supplying free food grains to the needy till September, the WB Government announced that financial assistance would be provided to the workers from the state trapped in different parts of the country. The government has released a mobile App called 'SNEHAR PARAS' so that stranded workers can apply for assistance. Accordingly, Rs 1,000 was transferred directly into their bank accounts to meet their immediate needs. The irrigation department has also announced that large sections of the semi-skilled workers would be absorbed in different operational projects, Moreover; the government has launched a scheme to utilise 50,000 acres of barren land in six districts for income-generating activities like horticulture and pisciculture.
(vii) Fake news and political propaganda against the state are the two additional challenges the administration has been facing along with the Coronavirus crisis.
(viii) Like many other states, West Bengal also has not received its due share of GST and other receivables from the Central Government. Moreover, the State Government is also grappling with the restrictions on its borrowing capacity. However, despite the paucity of funds, the WB Government has not discontinued any of the social welfare schemes it runs.
(ix) The onus of treating Corona and non-Corona patients during the last couple of months has primarily rested on the government hospitals in view of the refusal of most of the private hospitals to admit or treat patients. Though public health services have not yet collapsed as witnessed in some other states, these hospitals are becoming COVID hotspots. The WB government has not succeeded in involving private health providers in a more constructive way.
(x) The most important issue at this stage is to assess the opportunity cost of treating Coronavirus-infected persons by not offering the required medical services to non-Coronavirus patients. This needs to be incorporated while assessing any state's performance in combating the Coronavirus pandemic.
As a few lakh migrants would return to Bengal from red zones of West and North India, Coronavirus cases are likely to shoot up in the coming weeks. In addition, Amphan has already made the situation more complicated for the administration. A separate 'community-based COVID-19 primary care facilities' may well be developed involving 43,000 government-aided clubs and local physicians. Past experiences suggest that community participation helps in combatting famines, natural calamities and pandemics.The writer is an academic