As New CM & Health Min, Mamata Banerjee’s COVID Check List Is Huge

The third time Chief Minister has little time to enjoy her overwhelming victory in the state elections.

West Bengal
5 min read
Image of Mamata Banerjee used for representational purposes.

As Mamata Banerjee takes over as West Bengal’s Chief Minister for the third consecutive time, there is little time to celebrate as the COVID-19 scenario in the state is threatening to implode.

The state that was exposed to mass election rallies in a month-long election, as the second wave of the pandemic hit, had 1,26,663 active cases of the coronavirus as of 10 May. From 27 March when the election started, to date, the number of daily coronavirus cases in the state have grown significantly. In that time, the infrastructure in the state has already started showing signs of bursting at the seams.


Hospital Beds Gone As Soon As They Are Added

The first sign of panic that has hit Kolkata first and then the rest of the state is the shortage of beds in hospitals. Private hospitals have been running on full capacity for weeks, and more are being added every two or three days. However, the beds are booked almost as soon as they’re added, said a representative of AMRI Hospitals in Kolkata. “100 beds are occupied in a matter of minutes”, he said.

Even before taking oath as Chief Minister, the Bengal government released an exclusive COVID portal to reflect real-time availability of beds in government and private hospitals. Admission in government hospitals is only allowed via the Swasthya Bhawan or the Health Department, and patients can upload their COVID-positive report on the portal to gain admission.

However, as of 5pm on 11 May, almost all the government hospitals in Kolkata had less than 10 vacant beds, with many having no vacant beds at all.

Out of the 8 government hospitals in the North 24 Parganas, 5 showed no vacant beds at the time of writing this article, the other three had 1, 12 and 8 beds left.

In the state, Kolkata and the North 24 Parganas are bearing the highest case load with approximately 20 and 19 percent of the active cases being in these districts as of 10 May.

The government is takings steps to augment the number of COVID beds in the state by converting sports stadiums and other complexes into COVID-care centres. But experts worry if the rate at which the beds are being augmented is enough to account for the rate at which infections are multiplying.

Blackmarket Sale of Oxygen & Medicines

As per the last letter that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 7 May, West Bengal’s requirement for medical oxygen had increased from 230 metric tonne (MT) to 360MT (per day) in the last 10 days. According to the government’s estimation, the requirement is set to touch around 550MT per day in the next week. At the time that this letter was written, West Bengal was receiving 308MT of medical oxygen a day.

However, since weeks before this letter was written, in fact even before the elections ended, citizen volunteers in Kolkata have been complaining of shortage of oxygen cylinders and black marketeering of medical oxygen. As of 23 April, oxygen cylinders in Kolkata, which usually cost around 8,000 rupees, were being sold for as much as 60,000 rupees.

“We found out that certain suppliers were charging over 20,000 rupees or in some cases as much as 60,000 rupees for one 40 litre oxygen cylinder”, said Nayantara Basu, a volunteer with a COVID-help group in Kolkata.

“Cylinders which are usually rented out at 7-8 rupees a day are being rented out for 100 rupees a day. In some cases they’re charging exorbitant rates for the cylinder but not providing masks and other equipment with it which is not available in the market”, she adds.

“Some hospitals are also saying that they don’t have oxygen. So there’s clearly some black market hoarding going on.”

If black market hoarding of medical oxygen persisted at a time when oxygen supply in the state was surplus, the government might need to think how it’ll deal with this when the oxygen available in the state will be less than its total requirement.

A similar trend was also being noticed for crucial COVID drugs like Remdesivir. However, as per government orders, only hospitals are now allowed to sell these drugs. But intense rationing means that many don’t receive these medicines or that they’re sold out within a matter of minutes.


Stagnated Testing & Vaccination

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the state at this point in time comes in the form of testing and vaccination. West Bengal’s testing rate in abysmally low with the state only testing about 60,000 people a day. This is less than the number of tests being done in Delhi, which is only a city.

Epidemiologists point out that the testing facilities in the city are overburdened and the real problem is with the delay in test results. Because of the high number of tests being conducted and the limited facilities available, RT-PCR test results are taking an average of 48-72 hours to show results. Some path labs are also quoting 5-6 days to deliver reports.

The Dr Lal Path Lab in Kolkata, for example, when called on 10 May, said that they had no testing slots available for the next 7 days.

“We have the testing kits but our phlebotomists are overwhelmed. Last year, at the peak of the COVID-crisis, we were running 350 tests a day. This year, that number has gone up to 750 a day”, said a representative of another prominent private path lab in the city.

On the other hand, the vaccination process in the city was almost at a standstill for a few days. Many complained of not being able to get their second dose. Vaccination slots were unavailable in most places for those between 18-45 years of age.

The state has announced that vaccination in that age group is yet to begin. With the fresh lot of Covishield and Covaxin that has been procured, only those with second doses pending will be given their shots. No first shots will be administered to anyone for the time being, except for frontline workers like doctors, healthcare staff, cops and journalists.

The Looming Trouble In The Districts

Each passing day also shows a boom in cases in the district. This is worrisome as the districts do not have the infrastructure to support such a large number of cases, which are then referred to Kolkata, leading to a healthcare bottleneck.

Additionally, in places like North Bengal, there is only one major COVID hospital for 6-7 districts, causing the infrastructure there to be massively overburdened.

As of 10 May, there were less than 40 beds available in all of Darjeeling district, with the district seeing almost 700 new cases everyday.

Other districts are also showing a massive surge in cases. For example, the number of active cases in the Nadia district has increased by 20 percent since 1 May. Districts like Malda, Murshidabad, Purba Bardhaman, Paschim Bardhaman, Howrah and Hooghly have also seen a sudden spike in cases. However, medical infrastructure in these districts are yet to be boosted at a rate required to contain this spike.

Travel on the ground also shows that rural Bengal is still largely unaware and unaffected by the risks of the virus. Masking, which epidemiologists say, is the most important tool to curb the virus, is yet to be strictly enforced in many areas.

With the Chief Minister herself at the helm of the Health Ministry, she has a lot to do and not much time to do it.

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