Kolkata: After West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fired a salvo at the central government, claiming that the state only has 40 Covid-19 testing kits available to it, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has put the blame on her government, indicating that 40 kits doesn’t mean 40 tests, and saying the state has conducted less than 10 per cent of the total tests available to it.
Banerjee had said three days ago that the Narendra Modi government was not doing enough to help the state, and that even bringing the paucity of testing kits to the PM’s attention during a video conference last week had not borne fruit.
Acting on the CM’s statement, Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar asked the Union health minister to ensure adequate facilities and test kits for the state.
But in response, Harsh Vardhan has now sent a report to Raj Bhavan, which has been accessed by ThePrint, stating that Bengal has conducted only 199 tests out of the 2,500 that can still be done from the kits available to it.
Details in health minister’s report
Harsh Vardhan’s report, received at Raj Bhavan Wednesday, stated that there are four testing centres in Bengal — National Institute of Cholera & Enteric Diseases (NICED) in Kolkata, Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education & Research in Kolkata (IPGMER), Midnapore Medical College and the North Bengal Medical College.
Tests have only been conducted at three of these four centres, the report states.
NICED, which has the wherewithal to conduct 1,000 tests, has done 157. IPGMER has conducted 40 tests and has 1,098 tests left, while the Midnapore Medical College has only carried out two tests out of 200. The North Bengal Medical College has a capacity to conduct 200 tests as well.
The health ministry report also states that the School of Tropical Medicine in Kolkata has been approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for functioning as a Covid-19 laboratory, but the requisite reagents for conducting the tests have not been shipped yet due to difficulty in transportation as a result of the nationwide lockdown.
Health department figures
The figures put out by the West Bengal health services department on 25 March are different. It stated that 244 samples had been tested, of which 242 reports had been received, and nine had tested positive for the coronavirus.
But the health department said it has adequate infrastructure to continue testing for Covid-19.
Ajoy Chakraborty, director of health services, said: “We have all arrangements ready. We can go on with testing now, as and when it is required. We have test kits also.”
According to a senior health department official, the low rate of testing is because of ICMR guidelines. “We cannot go for random testing as ICMR in its guidelines said that every testing reagent is accounted for, and we should test if a patient shows symptoms,” the official said.
A senior doctor at IPGMER, who did not wish to be identified, pointed out that the “confusion” on the number of test kits might have arisen due to the fact that many do not know how these kits function.
“One kit can test 70 to 100 samples, depending on the variety. So, 40 kits do not necessarily mean that only 40 samples would be tested. It is a wrong notion. People should not be misled by numbers,” the doctor said.
Asked about the mismatch between the central and state reports, Governor Dhankhar told ThePrint: “I got in touch with the Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan on 23 March and interacted with him on the phone. He is extremely professional and concerned. I shared the concerns of the state with him.”
“While this surely is no time for such things, I may say that inputs to me are that the Union government is in overdrive as regards all the states in even-handed manner, and any grievance to the contrary is not well founded. I also find that both the central government and state government are in synergy mode,” Dhankhar said.
Politics rears its head
This is not the only issue CM Mamata Banerjee has raised about the way the central government has handled the coronavirus crisis. She has blamed it for not providing the state with adequate infrastructure, financial assistance, delaying the lockdown, allowing flights and train operations, and also for not consulting the state before imposing the National Disaster Management Act.
Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh blamed her for playing politics in this time of a health emergency. “She is not leaving a stone unturned to indulge in state-Centre politics. Our MPs are continuously working on the ground, talking to people, and have also allocated money from the MPLADS funds for the Covid-19 infrastructure. The Centre is in constant touch with all the states,” he said.
A senior BJP leader added that Banerjee is now trying to “undo” what she did a few weeks ago. “In a public meeting, she said that PM Modi is bringing up the coronavirus crisis to cover up the Delhi riots. And now, the same chief minister is saying that the central government has delayed the lockdown. People understand these politically motivated stands and statements,” the leader said.
However, Governor Dhankar appealed to all sides to stay away from politicking in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I appeal to all concerned to disable their political antennae for this crisis period, and take respite from political mileage. We all need to be in one-mission mode, and avoid any blame game,” Dhankhar said.