COVID Politics in WB: Mamata’s Many Missteps That Worsened Crisis

As the country suffers through a pandemic, in Bengal, politics seems to be trumping all.

4 min read

Video editor: Md Ibrahim.

As the coronavirus pandemic devastates India, how can politics be far behind?

This holds especially true for West Bengal, where the government’s general dispensation to COVID-19 testing and related data has been largely cagey.

As is obvious, this has opened up the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government in Bengal to attacks from the BJP and the central government.


The IMCT Showdown

In Bengal, this issue reached a point of escalation after the central government sent two teams, called the Inter Ministerial Central Teams, or the IMCT, to visit and report back on how the lockdown is being followed in the state. The teams were to visit certain "hotspots", chosen by themselves, to take stock of the situation.

These teams were sent to Kolkata by a special Air India cargo flight without any consultation with the state government, says Mamata and co.

In a letter that the chief minister wrote to Prime Minister Modi after the team arrived in Kolkata un-announced, she called the Centre’s concerns and the selection of these "hotspots" by the IMCT as "devoid of any facts".

Bengal's COVID Response: High on Optics, Low on Substance

While the Trinamool Congress may be playing the victim now, the fact is, Bengal’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which started high on optics, has left a lot to be answered.

And the government’s public botch ups have not helped the state’s perception either.

On paper, Bengal responded to the coronavirus crisis before the central government did.

The state was put under lockdown two days before the nation-wide lockdown came into effect.

In the subsequent days, political strategist Prashant Kishor ensured that the chief minister was not letting a good crisis go to waste. Suddenly, Mamata was holding daily press conferences, conducting surprise visits to hospitals, drawing perfect circles on market roads so that people can maintain social distance, and yes, all of this while the Trinamool social media team channeled its inner Van Gogh to put out images of Mamata as the next Indian superhero.

But just when we thought all this was too good to be true, guess what? It was.


A Series of Botch Ups

It started when the state government raised eyebrows by not issuing their daily medical bulletin for two consecutive days, on 2 and 3 April.

This happened right after a press conference by a team of government doctors, who put the number of COVID-19 related deaths in Bengal, at that point, at 7.

Barely two hours after this press conference, the chief secretary retracted the numbers and put the number of deaths in the state back at 5.

The next bulletin, which was issued, had a different format from the previous ones.

The number of new cases and deaths reported every day was replaced with the “number of active cases” each day.

This pointed people towards the testing rates in West Bengal.

At the time this video was recorded, the government said that it was testing around 700 samples each day from across the state.

Compare this to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or BMC which has been testing over 1200 samples per day, that too only in Mumbai, for the last many weeks.

While this was on, reports emerged from doctors across complaining about lack of safety kits while at work. Many even wrote to The Quint saying that they were being supplied torn rain coats instead of PPE kits.

To make their dealing of data even shadier, the chief minister announced that whether a death can be classified as a “COVID-19 death” or not will be decided by an expert audit committee which will “rule out comorbidities”.

This has been widely criticised as an attempt by the state government to keep their numbers low. After all, who can forget, an election is due next year.

The final nail on the coffin, really, came when the Director of the National Institute Of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), which is ICMR’s nodal body in Kolkata, said that they were receiving fewer samples for testing with each passing day. This was about two weeks into the lockdown, when Bengal was testing just over 200 people a day.

Amidst all of this, the Trinamool as well as Mamata reiterated over and again, that the Centre owes the state funds. One particularly strong allegation also was that the ICMR was sending the state government faulty kits, which threw up a lot of "inconclusive results" that needed repeat or confirmatory tests.

This claim by the state government was also backed by the NICED, which said that there was a problem with the standardisation of the ICMR testing kits.


BJP's Sustained Attack

This, of course, has not deterred the BJP IT cell, which has had a field day with all of this information.

While IT Cell Head Amit Malviya launched the attack on the Bengal government on Twitter, his minions took over the internet saying that Mamata had a problem with the Centre’s PPE kits because they are yellow in colour and not blue, which everyone knows is Mamata’s favourite colour.

Now, we'd be quick to say that this is a misinformation campaign, except the chief minister actually did say this! Though, not as vociferously as the IT cell is claiming it to be.

In conclusion, here are the facts. West Bengal has some of the lowest testing rates in the country and is consequently showing the lowest numbers among any other big state in the country. There are reports of lockdown violation, reports of inadequate medical infrastructure and reports of morbid work conditions.

But, as per usual, politics trumps all. However, this time, when the TMC accuses the BJP of playing politics over health, the saffron party, can, with pride, say: ‘Bhaiya, iss baar to start humne nahi kiya tha! (We did not start it this time!)‘

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