Kolkata: West Bengal is witnessing a surge in Covid-19 cases amid its eight-phase election currently underway, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also holds the health portfolio, yet to attend a meeting on the situation in the last three months.
Even Monday, the chief minister skipped a Covid-19 review meeting, which was held in the backdrop of the state recording nearly 8,000 cases a day in the past week.
She, however, did brief the media on the issue in Malda where she was campaigning for the elections.
Banerjee said her government would increase the Covid bed count by at least 20 per cent and ruled out any form of lockdown.
She also blamed the BJP for “getting hundreds of people from outside states to Bengal”, which she said may result in more infections, and questioned the presence of around 1.5 lakh central security personnel in the state.
The chief minister also suggested that the situation was under control. “Around 2,000 Covid patients are in critical condition; the rest are stable,” she said. “We have already formed a four-member Covid task force to handle the situation.”
But despite her remarks, the election campaign has kept the chief minister away from Covid-19 meetings.
She even skipped two video conferences between the prime minister and chief ministers on Covid — on 17 March and 8 April — with Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay having represented the state in the virtual meetings.
With cases rising — the state now has 53,418 active cases (as of 19 April) with 8,426 cases being reported Monday alone — Banerjee has written to Modi at least twice in the past two days.
On 18 April, she wrote to the PM asking for at least 5.4 crore doses of vaccines to vaccinate 2.7 crore eligible people. She also demanded at least 6,000 vials of Remdesvir every day, saying that the state has only 1,000 vials left.
On Tuesday, she wrote to Modi again, this time calling his decision to make the vaccination process universal as “hollow” and “empty rhetoric”. Her letter said states are still struggling to get the adequate number of vaccines.
Meanwhile, now weeks into the rigorous campaign schedule, the 66-year-old leader is yet to get herself vaccinated.
The ruling Trinamool Congress has defended the chief minister, saying she has always been ahead in managing Covid. “She was not able to hold meetings but her government works according to her directions. She is a hands-on chief minister,” the party’s veteran MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy told ThePrint.
No augmentation of beds
West Bengal, however, looks set for a crisis.
According to data available with the government, the state has 7,776 Covid-19 beds across 62 Covid treatment facilities (government sector) in the state. It has 1,838 ICU and HDU (high dependency unit) beds and 528 ventilators in the government’s Covid hospitals as on 18 April.
The numbers have, however, decreased.
On 31 December, when there was a slump in Covid numbers across the country and the state was recording around 1,000 Covid cases daily, West Bengal had 13,588 Covid-19 beds across 102 treatment facilities run by the government. The state had 2,523 ICU and HDU beds and 1,279 ventilators.
The reduced number of beds could hurt the state that is seeing a surge in cases. In just a month, the state has witnessed a 24-fold increase in the number of daily cases.
On 19 March this year, the state had recorded just 347 fresh cases. That number rose exponentially to 8,426 fresh cases on 19 April. For the past week, Bengal has been reporting over 8,000 fresh cases everyday.
The state appears to have only woken up to the crisis now. It issued a Covid-19 advisory on 13 April, after nearly three-and-a-half months. The last such advisory was issued on 12 December last year. Back then, the government had even released the requisitioned Covid beds in private hospitals, stating it would take them over again if there is a need.
Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim Monday told reporters that he was asked by the chief minister to hold meetings with officials to increase beds and other facilities.
“Uttirna, (a government office-cum-community centre) would be used as a Covid care centre,” he said. “The Gitanjali stadium, which is now with the ECI (Election Commission of India), will also be turned into a 200-bed Covid care facility after 2 May.”
Beds in demand
The status of beds in government hospitals appears to be worrying.
All major Covid hospitals in Kolkata, which has 14,780 active cases (as of 19 April), and the adjoining districts such as North 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly have no beds.
ThePrint spoke to families who complained of not getting beds even after the patients’ oxygen saturation level dropped below 80.
The government hospitals are also out of beds, said a family member of the patient, who did not want to be named. “The bed status figures in the website are not updated. I had tried all government and private hospitals in Kolkata,” said the patient’s relative. “I am yet to get a bed for my father, who is in a very critical condition. He is diabetic too.”
Trinamool leaders, however, blame the Modi government for the crisis.
“The government at centre is a control freak. Why did they need to control the vaccination process? Our CM wanted to buy a vaccine, she wrote to the PM in February seeking permission,” said TMC MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy. “But she did not get any response. We have acute shortage of vaccines. This is almost a man made disaster by Modi.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)