Is Bengal’s COVID Response Adequate? TMC’s Derek O’Brien Answers

The TMC MP and spokesperson talks about testing, audit committee for deaths and politics with the Centre.

8 min read

Video editor: Varun Sharma, Ashutosh Bharadwaj

The Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government has come under severe criticism in recent weeks for the state's low testing rates during the COVID-19 pandemic and alleged attempts to suppress COVID-related data.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) and West Bengal government, on the other hand, have repeatedly complained about faulty testing kits provided to them by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).

In the midst of all of this, two ministerial teams sent by the Centre to Bengal, without any apparent communication to the state, has also left the TMC fuming and has turned a health crisis into an increasingly political one.

In this chat with The Quint, Trinamool Congress' Rajya Sabha MP and National Spokesperson, Derek O' Brien, responds to some of the allegations raised against the Bengal government, asserting that the state has no problems with testing. Here are some edited excerpts from the interview:


Bengal government’s response started on a high note, when the CM was seen as proactive. But, a few weeks down the line, there were allegations that the government was suppressing data or not being transparent. And this is not the just the BJP saying it… there are a lot people on social media, regular folks, who are saying it. How would you respond to that?

You see, firstly, we musn’t begin these conversations with such a negative mindset. We have to see what did Bengal get right from 5 March. No one is talking about that. On 5 March, the parliamentarians from the All India Trinamool Congress wrote to the Centre, asking for Parliamentary committees to discuss the impact of the coronavirus. That was 5 March.

On 6 March, the All India Trinamool Congress chairperson, who is also the chief minister of Bengal, held a press conference in Kolkata. Right through March, almost every day, we brought this issue up in Parliament. This is not the time to do politics, but please find out what was happening between 5 March and 24 March.

Every single day in Parliament, Trinamool was pleading with this government to shut Parliament down, to enforce physical distancing. But what were they doing? Were they delaying all this because of the Madhya Pradesh government (formation)?

Why is it only West Bengal that is “auditing” the death of each COVID-19 patient and deciding which can or cannot be called “COVID deaths”?

It’s a call that you have to take – not as a bureaucrat or as a politician. There is a famous American epidemiologist by the name of Feinstein. In the 1970s, he propounded the theory that in a pandemic or epidemic, co-morbidity is a factor that needs to be taken into account. There is a primary reason for death. There is a secondary reason for death. Not to exaggerate the numbers. That is Feinstein’s theory.

That is why, the expert committee are looking at co-morbidity and primary and secondary reasons. It’s a medical way of looking at it. You may agree, you may disagree. But this is a very transparent way of looking at it and there’s nothing to hide and seek about this expert committee.

(Editor's note: West Bengal has an expert 'audit committee' that examines each COVID-19 positive death in the state. Only those deaths which are not "due to co-morbidities" are then classified as "COVID deaths" and notified in the medical bulletin. There is no daily numbers released by the government, to show how many COVID deaths the audit committee audits each day or over a period of time. On 24 April, the government, after questions from a central ministerial team, revealed that the committee had, till then, examined 57 deaths of COVID-positive patients. Of them, only 18 had been declared as 'COVID deaths' by the government earlier.)

Bengal has been criticised for its low rates of testing…

Let’s try and understand what was the testing issue and did Bengal make up their own norms?

First on the testing, is who can order testing kits? The central government can order the testing kits.

Number two, who can approve the testing and the locations where the testing is done? We approve? No. The central government has to approve.

Three, how many testing centres were there initially? There were two testing centres. Bengal government applied and then got permission for five more. Now, there are 7-8 testing centres.

Four, what were the ICMR guidelines in the beginning? The ICMR guidelines in the beginning very clearly said that asymptomatic patients couldn’t be tested. Only symptomatic. Then that guideline was changed.

First, we followed the first guideline, now, we follow the second guideline. Now, lo and behold, the testing kits are faulty and have been recalled. This is the way we are doing it.

These are not my statements. This is what the Director of the National Institute of Cholera And Enteric Diseases (NICED), who reports to the ICMR, has said. Why did they say it? And why did it take them 10-12 days to say it? Because the results they were getting were non-conclusive.

Two supplementary questions.

First, because you’ve mentioned NICED... they have also gone on record, around 11-12 April, to say that with each passing day they were being sent less samples by the state government.

And secondly, we are only seeing an exponential increase in testing percentage in the past week. Why were we testing low in the beginning? Because in the beginning, when NICED made this statement, Bengal was testing only about 200 people a day.

Did NICED know at that time that the kits have to go back? Did they know at the time that there were two centres that became seven centres after approval?

But why are they saying that the samples sent by the state government have decreased? That has nothing to do with testing kits.

Again, you are referring to an interview on 12 April. It is very simple mathematics. If there are two centres, and now there are seven centres, what is the issue? You please look at the numbers of the last three days. And the NICED story is a closed chapter. Because the NICED director, the same lady, seven days later says that “I’m so sorry, we are recalling the kits!”. Let’s not go too much into the kits. Because I’ve given you five solid reasons as to where the problem lies with the kits.

Again, going back to the NICED statement... at that point, in the same interview, on 12 April, they said that they have 27,000 kits with them but there were not enough samples being taken and sent to them. Why was the state not sending samples?

You’re referring to the 12 April interview. When did those kits land in Bengal? On 12 April! They landed on 12 April…

But irrespective of the kits, why was the state not sending samples to the NICED?

Of course the state was sending samples! We were sending samples to the NICED. But, what is the NICED’s capacity?

But, they said they were receiving lesser samples by the day.

Just please understand. Why are we talking about 12 April, when the NICED director has given an interview on 19 April saying that, ‘We are very sorry, give back the kits.’

Because they are two separate issues. Issues of the kits and issues of the state government not sending samples are two separate issues.

Let me give you the numbers. If there are two testing centres in a state, and then the centres become seven. What happens to the two testing centres? Won’t those numbers go down because now the numbers are being spread over everywhere. Please look at the numbers and you will get a good idea.

(Editor's note: In interviews to India Today and NDTV on 11 and 12 April, the Director of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), the ICMR’s nodal body in Kolkata, said they were not getting enough samples for testing from the Bengal government.)


With repeated affronts with the BJP, is it politics over health in Bengal?

All the states are fighting the coronavirus, except that the Centre has started fighting the states. We want to solve this. We want to work together. And Mamata Banerjee is leading this from the front. Now, what about the Centre sending their ministerial teams? How bad is that? How sickening is that? Doing politics now?

I appeal to Mr Modi and Mr Shah to stop this politicisation. There are four-five Twitter handles of BJP who are trying to spread all this misinformation. What can be more painful than the way this ministerial team has been sent? And I’m not giving you rhetoric. Is this federalism?

But the MHA says that all states were intimated in advance of the fact that these ministerial teams were coming. Do you agree?

Let me ask you five rhetorical questions. Do you think it is fair in federalism that if the delegation arrives at 10 o’clock and the Home Minister calls at 1pm? That’s fair? That is federalism? Do you think it is fair that three districts are chosen – Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri – where there have been no COVID-19 cases, and they have come clear of COVID cases and you’ve gone and chosen them? Is this fair? You think it is fair that Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, with 2,000 and 1,200 cases in one-one district or two-two districts… they have not been declared? Bengal, in seven districts, 225 people have COVID, you think this is all fair? This is all constitutional? This is all federalism?

(Editor's note: The central government, on 20 April, sent two teams, called the Inter Ministerial Central Team, or the IMCT, to Bengal in order to check and report back on the lockdown.)

Doctors across the state have complained of lack of safety equipment, torn raincoats instead of PPE kits. Is the state looking into this? Why was Dr Indranil Khan harassed by the state for pointing this out?

I’m not going to answer about some BJP office bearer who was arrested and you’re asking the national spokesperson of the Trinamool to respond to this kind of thing. Check out his track record, see what he’s done. He is first a BJP lackey and then he’s a doctor. I’m not going to go into individual cases here. Not at all.

But the grounds for harassment was that he had written something against the state government…

I have no idea. I have better things to do in my life than to check out Twitter handles, and what happened… I have no time for that, no inclination for that. My focus now is on healthcare workers in Bengal. That is the issue. Doctors, nurses, wardboys, sanitation. And not only them, the grocery boys, those who deliver newspapers… this is the focus.

Now, let me come to the equipment. Bengal on 11 or 12 March started becoming self-sufficient. Thankfully, that’s why we have over four lakh PPEs, and we have five lakh, give or take a few thousand, of those N95 masks. We have 80,000 litres of sanitizer. All this was ordered on 12 or 13 March. So there is no shortage. Absolutely no shortage!

Two, fake news. Through the one-odd damaged equipment here and there and using the WhatsApp University of the BJP... this is their style. They’ll take one case... there may have been a case, I’m not saying there would not have, there may have been a case, there may have been two. When you are talking about 50,000 doctors practicing in Bengal. When you’re talking about a state which has more hospital beds per 1,000 than any else.

By the way, Bengal has 2.5 per thousand hospital beds. Other states have less than 1.5. We have PPEs. We have those masks. Absolutely no problem. So, please don’t get carried away, and I’m saying this with all responsibility, by the Whatsapp University.

(Editor's note: Dr Indranil Khan, an oncologist in Kolkata, went to the Calcutta High Court alleging harassment by the state police after he wrote a post on Facebook saying that raincoats, instead of PPEs, were being given to doctors in the state. He was interrogated for 16 hours.)

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