Even as Covid-related deaths sharply rise in West Bengal and the Mamata Banerjee government is blamed for suppressing the true extent of the pandemic , a visit to a district hospital in the state’s rural outback reveals an alarming picture.
The scene at the Purba Medinipur (East Midnapore) District Hospital reminds one of the Bengali adage ” Dhal Nei , Torowal Nei , Nidhiram Sardar’ (no shield, no sword to battle with).
With 1259 Covid-positive cases and 133 deaths officially recorded so far, West Bengal not only has a higher mortality rate than most Indian states but also seems to be paying the price for playing down both the number of Covid-positive cases and even deaths.
Before visiting Purba Medinipur district , Easternlink clicked into the district page and found the following claims on the ‘health page’ of the district’s website : (http://purbamedinipur.gov.in/)
“The government is paying increasing attention to integrated health, maternity and childcare in rural areas. An increasing number of coming health workers and doctors are being sent to rural health centers. Economically poorer sections of our population are very much dependent on the government health-infrastructure, which requires massive augmentation, what we need is to care in all its dimensions. The need is to strengthen the entire primary healthcare system.
” Despite infrastructural bottlenecks, Purba Medinipur holds a significant place in the state vis-à-vis health states. In a combined rank of blocks in consideration of estimated Birth Rate and female literacy rate in W.B., Purba Medinipur blocks occupy front ranking positions. Considering the fact that population served per bed in rural Purba Medinipur is 6034 persons and urban Purba Medinipur is 199. It can be said that despite various problems, the government health mechanism has served well the district.
In line with the initiatives taken by the state government, it is imperative to remove identified constraints and inadequacies of the health system with respect to manpower, infrastructure and availability of financial resources. ”
Encouraging by the tall claims of “front ranking positions” that the district held, Easternlink decided to check out how the main district hospital was faring in the battle against the C-Virus. The investigations revealed the following :
* The hospital does not have a single unit of the vital RT-PCR test kit. The sources said that the total lack of RT-PCR kits reveals that not sufficient tests are being carried out at the hospital. In fact, reports reaching “responsible” hospital staff say that large numbers of people in the villages of this backward district are consulting quacks or ayurvedic ‘doctors’ for treatment.
* It also does not have sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). There are some PPEs for the Coronavirus ward, but none at all for the emergency section or for paramedics or Class IV staff who attend to suspected Covid-19 patients.
* There are other problems and handicaps — results of lack of cohesion, confusion, poor planning and total unpreparedness — that doctors at the Purba Medinipur District Hospital are having to encounter. Since there are no sophisticated test kits that could come up with results almost immediately after swab samples are taken, the hospital authorities are having to send samples to different specialised research and immunology/virology institutions in Kolkata.
“When the number of positive cases began to rise across the state, the doctors were advised every two or three days to send swab samples to the National Institute for Communicable and Enteric Diseases (NICED) — formerly the Infectious Diseases Hospital — at Beleghata, followed by the School of Tropical Medicine or to R G Kar Medical College and Hospital or to SSKM Hospital,” health department sources, revealing the conditions in a state where the chief minister also holds the health portfolio.
The number of Covid-19 positive cases is on a steady rise in Bengal. While on May 3, the state 1,259 positive after only 22,915 persons were tested. In other words, there were five positive cases in every 100 tests. Till May 5, the total number of positive cases across the state stood at 1,344 where as a total of only 27,571 samples were collected and tested.
The sources said that besides the challenges posed by lack of proper test and PPE kits, doctors across several state government hospitals have to fill up a lengthy four-page proforma (issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research) in which they have to list out in detail information related to patients’ swab, tests carried out, test procedures and results among other things. Information related to the number of doctors, nurses and other paramedical staff also need to be filled up.
As for the tests, the sources said that “this is like the dengue system” — a reference to the routine government-ordained under-reporting of the mosquito-borne viral disease that occurs every year across parts of West Bengal, including Kolkata. “Since there are no testing kits, the number of positive cases in East Midnapore is relatively less,” an insider said, adding that “this helps to keep the total number of positive cases low”.
While the picture at the district hospital is dismal, conditions in others parts of East Midnapore is worse. The sources admitted that Haldia, Egra and Panshkura have thrown up far greater numbers of Covid-19 positive cases, including several among returnees from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin in Delhi. On the other hand, there have also been cases where patients tested negative. “The state government has somehow managed to keep this issue (positive cases among Tablighi Jamaatis) under wraps,” the sources said.
Among the most “problematic” issues that West Bengal health department officials are having to reconcile with is that of large number of positive cases among paediatric patients.
“An unwritten instruction has been issued, saying that paediatric patients should not be the focus of any attention now. But several government hospitals across the state have reported a large number of Covid-19 positive among new-borns and children who are asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Their swab samples are not being collected, though they are carriers of the virus and may have infected many adults by now and will continue to do so,” a knowledgeable health department official said.
The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government claims that Purba Medinipur’s health scenario has changed dramatically in the past few years — 3 multi-super speciality hospitals, 5 fair-price medicine shops, 2 fair-price diagnostic centres, 20 SNSUs, 2 SNCUs, 6 CCUs, 6 HDUs, an increase of 100 beds at Contai Sub-divisional Hospital (from 200 to 300).
But claims are claims, realities are often different. And hospitals are mere buildings and those employed there are mere numbers unless they have the necessary facilities.