Bengal, like the rest of India, is in the grip of a brutal new wave of the pandemic. The eastern state reported 12,876 infections on April 23 and 59 deaths. The graph has been rising for over a month, with daily infections spiking 15 times and active cases six times in that period. Yet, while several states moved to restrict gatherings, Bengal saw large rallies by political parties fighting the ongoing election, polling for which began on March 27. Two of the eight phases of polling are still to be completed because the Election Commission refused to merge the last two phases despite rising cases.
As the virus spreads rapidly the public as well as the healthcare workers are worried. So, is Bengal prepared for what’s to come?
Few people are in a better position to answer that question than Dr Parthasarathi Bhattacharjee, an epidemiologist who is on the frontlines of the Covid battle.
He spoke about what is driving the new wave, how dire the situation is, and whether Bengal is prepared to deal with it.
Should Bengal be worried about this surge in Covid cases?
There is enough reason to worry, yes, given how the virus is spreading. This new variant is far more infectious and more people are getting infected more quickly. So, the ongoing election is a matter of concern.
What’s the state doing to curb the spread?
The health department is facing the onerous task of sensitising people who seldom care for Covid safety norms. Every now and then, you will find people roaming in droves without masks and without maintaining safety protocols. Since the pandemic began I have been involved in over 200 Covid awareness camps, where I supervised sensitisation events. We distributed several thousand masks, sanitisers free of cost. But just when it appeared that Covid was under control, people started behaving recklessly and infection numbers increased rapidly.
Are Bengal’s hospitals prepared to deal with the surge?
There are shortages of everything, from vaccines to equipment. We are facing an uphill task. A doctor like me is spending even a month without going home. We are not keeping physical contact with family members out of fear of giving them the infection. At least 10 doctors have died in Bengal since last year. When even the lives of doctors are not safe, how can you expect common people to be safe? The number of patients coming to hospitals is increasing by the day and we aren’t able to accommodate all of them for want of beds, oxygen supplies, and masks.
Why is there so much scarcity?
This is natural as Covid is an unprecedented emergency. Nobody could anticipate its coming. Unless you have any insight of such a health emergency coming that is unheard of in recent history, how would you tackle it? Also, I must admit it's high time that governments ramped up facilities. Covid has given us a hard lesson.
Do you think the election rallies have led to more people getting infected?
The number of deaths in North 24 Parganas – 2,645 – and Howrah – 1,083 – is alarming. So many election rallies are happening in these areas, and we must really, really worry. More gatherings, more human contact means more worries. In a democracy, political parties must be sensible. That’s all I can say.
Should the last three phases of polling have been wrapped up in one day?
You can’t deny that there’s a link between the rise in infections and election rallies. We have found more instances of infection in random tests of people at gatherings. But I would not like to comment on the merging of election phases.
What should be the next plan of action for Bengal? Have you had any communication with the state government regarding this?
The government is very worried about the infection rate. The home secretary, HK Dwivedi, has convened a meeting on the pandemic situation. Our prime concern is the lack of oxygen supply. And our focus will be on breaking the infection chain through vaccination.