Covid-19: The Curious Case Of West Bengal
THE WEEK|May 24, 2020
With low testing and the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the country, West Bengal could be staring at a public health disaster. THE WEEK takes a look at how things came to a head in the state
Rabi Banerjee

IN A MESS West bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee

On March 19, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Janata Curfew to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, West Bengal seemed preoccupied with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and its attendant politics. Though Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did not object to Modi’s decision, many shops remained open on March 22, the day of the curfew. The same day, Banerjee declared a lockdown in West Bengal till March 27, signalling that the state would decide on all pandemic-related measures.

At the time, both Banerjee and the state BJP were chalking out plans for next year’s assembly elections. While many BJP leaders were slated to visit the state, Banerjee was preparing to head to north Bengal, where her party was routed in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. She was banking on the anti-CAA sentiment in the state, and her new strategist, Prashant Kishor, was keenly monitoring the situation.

Elsewhere, a storm was brewing. As Covid-19 cases started increasing in March, many factories across the country began releasing workers and shutting down. Amid the panic and chaos, a large number of Bengalis had to return home. “There was no way I could stay there (Kerala),” said Tofajjal Sheikh, a young man from Lalgola in Murshidabad. “I was working in an agro-farm near Kasargod. My employer asked me to go back home as many other employees were also running a fever. I came to Lalgola on March 12.”

Thousands of others also returned, but medical checks at the stations were reportedly lax. “I was alarmed to see how migrants were treated,” virologist Amitava Nandy told THE WEEK. “They were all coming from highly infected zones and were released after being given hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). This is absurd and unimaginable. HCQ has no role at the pre-exposure level. Even in full-blown patients, it does not kill the virus but only reduces symptoms. They should have been sent for institutionalised quarantine.”

Hundreds of students from Rajasthan, Kerala and Maharashtra, who returned in buses and trains, were also given HCQ and allowed to go home to various parts of the state.

“We are unable to track the virus because the way it is mutating is alarming,” said Nandy. “It has a certain character in one place, but just 5km away, it is mutating in such a way that the old antibodies fail to tackle it.”

When the Modi government first extended the lockdown till April 30, Banerjee said her state would also do so, but with a human face. Bengal kept open markets and gave relaxations to labour-intensive sectors like tea and jute. However, people violated social distancing norms in these places, which could have worsened the situation in the state.

TOUGH JOB Health workers waiting for the body of a Covid-19 patient at Bangur Hospital in Kolkata

Bengal was also reportedly late in tracking down those who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi, which later became a Covid-19 hotspot. According to news reports, the state began identifying the attendees only on March 31, nearly 10 days after the event had ended.

A large number of people from Kolkata, Howrah, South 24 Parganas, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas, Malda and Murshidabad had gone to the Tablighi markaz (centre). The Bengal government, however, officially detected only 73 attendees, who came to it voluntarily. “If Assam could detect 500 cases within three days and altogether 800 cases, why could the Bengal government not go beyond 73?” asked state BJP president Dilip Ghosh. “Apart from migration, the Tablighi returnees are the major reason for infections in the rural belt. The government knew it and did nothing.”

BENGAL WAS REPORTEDLY LATE IN TRACKING DOWN THOSE WHO HAD ATTENDED THE TABLIGHI JAMAAT EVENT IN DELHI, WHICH LATER BECAME A COVID-19 HOTSPOT.

But there were also some who supported Banerjee. “The chief minister dealt with the Tablighi issue correctly,” said Syed Zamirul Hasan, state president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. “They (Tablighis) are known for their cleanliness. It is a pity that the Centre and many other governments gave them a bad name and ill-treated them.”

Nevertheless, people living in certain parts of central Kolkata like Park Circus and Taltala—where many Tablighi Jamaat followers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are said to be staying—told THE WEEK that they saw many bodies being taken out from their areas recently.

Shehanshah Jahangir, former In dian Union Muslim League national secretary and businessman, said he was also told about bodies taken to various burial grounds in Kolkata. “Not only Muslims, but many Hindus also died in the past one month,” he said. “They might have died of other diseases, but the way they were cremated and buried by the police and sanitation workers wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) raised a lot of suspicion.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE WEEKView All

THE MILLENNIAL MESSENGER

With his pen spitting fire against issues like caste and politicking, Tamil rapper Arivu wants to influence the lives of people around him

4 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

I HAVE JUST STARTED OUT

INTERVIEW Anupam Kher, actor

4 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

The resilient city

When faced with a looming oxygen crisis, Mumbai responded by changing its supply-based system to a storage-based one

4 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

INDIA'S FERTILITY DROP

The sperm count is down, and egg quality low. Men and women in India are struggling to conceive. While lifestyle issues do contribute to infertility, researchers are more worried about hormone-altering chemicals that surround us. THE WEEK investigates how these are impacting our reproductive health

10+ mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

Loss and profit

With his challengers failing to deliver West Bengal for the BJP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s chair appears to be safe for now

4 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

Court off-balance

While courts have had to step in to fill the vacuum left by the executive, not every order has helped pandemic management

6 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

Scripting a flop

After drawing a blank in the polls and facing a revolt in his party, Kamal Haasan has a dim political future

4 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

Low sperm count is an indicator of the presence of disease

Dr Shanna Swan, professor of environmental medicine and public health, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City

10 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

Bedlam in Bengaluru

Amid a political slugfest triggered by Tejasvi Surya, Karnataka desperately tries to shore up its creaky Covid response system

6 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021

Fungus Follows Virus

Pandemic has led to an increase in the incidence of mucormycosis, which can be life-threatening

3 mins read
THE WEEK
May 23, 2021
RELATED STORIES

Another fight

Now that she is back as chief minster once again, Mamata Banerjee must put an end to the post-poll violence, shore up facilities to save lives hit by the raging pandemic and restore the economic health of the state

7 mins read
India Legal
May 17, 2021

THE LAW OF POETRY

Legal regulation strategist Naina Pachnanda is out to motivate India’s youth through Instagram inspiration and her new book of patriotic poetry

4 mins read
eShe
May - June 2021

एअरफोर्स के विशेष विमान से महानगर में पहुंचा ऑक्सीजन सिलिंडर

राज्य में ऑक्सीजन गैस का अभाव नहीं, बल्कि ऑक्सीजन सिलिंडर का अभाव समस्या की मुख्य वजह बन गया है।

1 min read
Samagya
May 11, 2021

8 women & 7 minority MLAs among Didi's 43 ministers

Mamata Mixes Fresh Faces With Experience

1 min read
The Times of India Hyderabad
May 11, 2021

How The Jewelry Industry is Riding The New Normal

Technology, particularly social media, has also played a crucial role in helping the gems and jewellery industry to regain what it lost in the year since the pandemic. Many companies have taken a leap of faith by continuing to power on with their businesses along with their partners and consumers, using the digital platform to bridge the gap between the real and physical world as seamlessly as they can…

4 mins read
Images Retail
April 2021

Better bonding and bitter goodbyes: Why this Mother's Day is different

Some have been distanced by geography, others thrown closer by circumstances, and those who’ve lost their mums feel a gaping void. Sunday Times charts connections lost and found

4 mins read
The Times of India Delhi
May 09, 2021

TRAVEL & LEISURE

I LIKE ITC SONAR BANGLA SHERATON OF KOLKATA A LOT —ISHANK JAGGI

1 min read
Cricket Today
April 30, 2021

आज से लोकल ट्रेनें बंद, सीमित घंटों तक काम करेंगे बैंक

सीएम पद संभालते ही एक्शन में ममता बनर्जी, उच्च स्तरीय बैठक कर लिए कई बड़े फैसले

1 min read
Samagya
May 06, 2021

प्राथमिक रुप से 25 बेड के साथ महानगर में शुरु हुआ राज्य का पहला ऑक्सीजन पार्लर

सोमवार से महानगर का पहला ऑक्सीजन पार्लर को शुरू हुआ। कोरोना संक्रमित मरीजों की समस्या को करने के लिए उत्तीर्ण स्टेडियम में राज्य सरकार व कोलकाता नगर निगम की पहल पर एक निजी स्वयंसेवी संगठन के सहयोग से यह ऑक्सीजन पार्लर तैयार किया गया है।

1 min read
Samagya
May 04, 2021

महानगर में कोरोना संक्रमण के बढ़ते मामलों को लेकर मध्य कोलकाता के कई बाजार चार दिनों के लिए बंद

पश्चिम बंगाल में कोरोना का संक्रमण तेजी से बढ़ रहा है। विशेष रूप से कोलकाता और उत्तर 24 परगना में नए कोविड -19 मामलों की संख्या चिंताजनक है।

1 min read
Samagya
April 30, 2021