Kolkata: He prefers to call himself a “doctor activist” and a “government servant”, but Abhijeet Choudhury has emerged as the go-to man for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in this pandemic season.
Choudhury, a Kolkata-based gastroenterologist and a distinguished visiting fellow, public health, Harvard University, is the convener of Mamata’s global advisory board led by Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee and heads an expert committee of doctors on treatment and testing protocol for Covid-19 infections.
The 60-year-old spends almost all of his time visiting hospitals across districts, counselling doctors, and working on the treatment and containment guidelines.
A controversial choice
Choudhury’s appointment as the chief of the expert committee on treatment protocol and as the convenor of the Global Advisory Board has not been without controversy.
The appointment has been criticised, primarily because the doctor is a gastroenterologist and not an epidemiologist.
Choudhury, however, brushes aside the flak he receives.
“In order to lead the fight against the virus, one does not need to be a specialist. You just need to be a doctor,” Choudhury told ThePrint. “The ICMR chief who is leading it nationally is a cardiologist. In fact, A.R. Rahman, who has composed some of the greatest international music, does not have a Master’s degree in music.”
The gastroenterologist says he prefers to concentrate on his work.
Choudhury has been provided with a helicopter by the state government to fly to various locations, from Jalpaiguri to Malda and from Siliguri to Murshidabad, to oversee the state’s Covid-19 infrastructure and to counsel the doctors who now appear to be in trouble.
In West Bengal, at least a dozen doctors, including senior officials of the state’s health department and superintendents of government hospitals, have been infected and are under treatment.
“If doctors get scared, then who will be there to serve and treat the people? I know doctors too have their trauma, their problems and they need counselling,” Choudhury said. “This is not a work that can be imposed on anybody. Doctors have to come willingly and voluntarily. The government has addressed issues related to protective gear and medicines. Now all of us need to protect ourselves and treat our patients.”
The doctor also advocates against doomsday theories, saying only 10 per cent of Covid-19 patients get significantly ill.
“I am trying to convince people to get over the pessimism. It seems that they are living in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land-kind of situation where the very existence of humans is being threatened. It is not so,” he said. “Only 10 per cent of infections are significant to us in terms of treatment. Around 20 per cent are asymptomatic and 50 per cent are mildly infected. Rest are also moderate in nature of the infection.”
“People are preoccupied with the thought that it is a fight between life and death. It is not,” he added.
State’s Covid-19 infrastructure being redesigned
Choudhury also oversees the state’s Covid-19 infrastructure apart from discussing treatment protocols.
“No state was prepared for such a pandemic scientifically, systematically and mentally. So we are re-purposing and re-designing the entire infrastructure,” he said. “The state has already set up 62-odd Covid hospitals across districts. We have also identified at least one hospital in each district for SARI and ILI cases.”
According to Choudhury, Bengal has recorded a high number of SARI (severe acute respiratory illness) and ILI (influenza like illness ) cases. In Bengal, the number of SARI cases has crossed 1,000 but early detection is key to cure in all these cases, he added.
Choudhury, however, did not comment on allegations that the state is fudging data, suppressing information on sample testing. “I am not part of these committees and these are policy matters of the state. It will not be right on my part to comment on them,” he said.
According to latest figures shared by the government, Bengal had 274 active cases as of Tuesday evening, with 15 deaths being recorded so far.
Son of a Communist leader
For all his closeness to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Choudhury is the son of late CPI(M) leader Arun Choudhury, who was the general secretary of Left-backed All Bengal Teachers Association (ABTA).
ABTA was one of the most influential organisations during the Left regime and the senior leader was known to be part of the close circles of former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
“I am proud to be his son and whatever values I have, I got from him. He was a Communist leader but I too believe in a certain political ideology,” Choudhury said. “But I had always been a government servant and a doctor who served the Ashok Stambha (government) not any political party. In Bengal, most intellectuals always try to level a political identity on everybody and pass a verdict, which is an oversimplification of issues.”
Choudhury has also been working with Prof Abhijit Banerjee since 2013 on several public health projects. “The committee meets every Thursday and we submit our suggestions / recommendations to the state’s chief secretary,” he said.
(This report has been updated to reflect the correct name of Abhijeet Choudhury’s father, Arun Choudhury.)