Gathering Coronavirus data from states: More central monitoring teams is a good idea

By: |
May 6, 2020 4:45 AM

Even now, a state like West Bengal’s data looks dodgy; others like Gujarat and UP also pose challenges

The West Bengal government’s insistence that the ICMT is against the principle of federalism doesn’t hold water since similar teams have been sent to other states as well.

The Inter-Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) sent to West Bengal red-flagging the state’s poor testing rate and irregularities in accounting of Covid-19 deaths underscores the need for a lot more central monitoring, even if states are to be allowed to strategise and execute their response.

The West Bengal government’s insistence that the ICMT is against the principle of federalism doesn’t hold water since similar teams have been sent to Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh (the last two being BJP-ruled). Given that such central intervention wasn’t planned for opposition-ruled Kerala or Odisha—two states that have taken strong anti-Covid measures—it is clear that the central intervention has very little to do with politics; the teams were sent because of reports of large-scale violation of the national lockdown as well as very fast—or unusually slow—growth in infection levels.

West Bengal’s death rate, at the time of the ICMT communicating it observations to the state chief secretary, stood at 12.8%, the highest in the country. This unusually high number indicates that the state was reporting lower infection levels than actual; Gujarat used to report very high death rates and, later, as more testing got done, there was a rapid increase in infections. West Bengal has one of the lowest testing (per million population) rates, at just 254; Uttar Pradesh (UP) is not much better at 367. It too needs more monitoring since its infections per million population is a mere 11.9 versus the all-India average of 34.3. Indeed, UP’s recovery rate (recovered patients as % of total cases) is a low 28.9—Punjab is even lower at 9.8—versus West Bengal’s 17, which suggests a large number of new cases; Kerala’s recovery rate is as high as 92%.

To be sure, West Bengal has ramped up testing over the past few days, with daily testing rising from just 400 to nearly 2,500, but this is still inadequate. The state has also been less than forthcoming on its Covid numbers—while there were discrepancies in the number of infected that the state reported in a letter to the Union government and its own bulletin for the same day, the Death Audit Committee set up by the state discounted the deaths of 72 Covid-19 positive individuals from its tally of Covid-19 deaths, arguing that these deaths were to be attributed to co-morbidities in the deceased rather than Covid-19! After the central team’s visit, the state raised its deaths from 35 (May 4) to 133 (May 5), and infections from 963 to 1,259.

The Union government should now consider similar interventions for UP, Punjab, Bihar and Jharkhand. While UP seems to have a very low testing rate per million—which could lead to an under-reporting of cases—a large population of migrant workers returning from cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, etc, that have seen cases proliferate, will be landing over the next few days. Similarly, Bihar and Jharkhand, which will also be seeing a massive return of migrant workers from metros with high incidence, are not doing adequate testing (on a testing per million basis).

Of course, the spread of the disease also depends on contact history, etc, but a Bihar, as reported by The Indian Express, is failing to enforce quarantining of returnee workers in the villages. An ICMT doesn’t necessarily have to take over, but it can offer diagnoses of where the states are getting it wrong.

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