Bengal’s handling of the Covid outbreak raises many questions.
West Bengal’s mishandling of the Covid-19 outbreak is plunging alarming depths. A state government appointed Death Audit Committee (DAC) reports 33 Covid-19 deaths as of April 30, while it acknowledges that the number of dead who tested positive for Covid-19 is 105. It insists only 33 deaths are attributable to Covid-19, while the other deaths are because of co-morbidities. Against a total of 744 cases (as per the state’s April 30 bulletin), the death rate is 4.4% if the ‘33 deaths’ version is considered; this is higher than the national death rate of 3.2%, but not as drastically as the death rate of 14.1% if the number of deaths is taken to be 105.
Such classification of the deaths is quite irregular—no other state in the country is discounting Covid-19-positive fatalities for pre-existing medical conditions. Given the risk of death in Covid-19 cases increases with co-morbidities, most jurisdictions around the world have been classifying such deaths as Covid-19 deaths. More important, with studies showing that Covid-19 pathogen attacks the body at multiple sites and in multiple ways, it is not clear how the state is making the distinction in attribution of death. Indeed, the central team tasked with monitoring the state’s response had asked the DAC to explain the methodology.
The DAC, as per a report in The Indian Express, has advised the state health department officials to “keep more records of patients and improve the procedure of keeping records”. It has also pushed for a uniform format to issue death certificates, detailing immediate cause of death, antecedent cause of death and underlying cause of death, the standard protocol for medical reporting of death. That the committee should have to even reiterate a standard protocol shows how procedural lapses could also be masking the state’s true Covid-19 burden.
Also, as alleged on social media, while an annexure to a letter from the West Bengal health department to Union health ministry, dated April 30, demanding a reassessment of the ‘red-amber-green’ zones in the state on the basis of reported cases from each district gives a total of 931 cases in the state, the health department’s bulletin dated April 30 gives a total of 744; adding even the 72 deaths not considered as Covid-19 deaths by the state despite the deceased having tested positive, the total is still 816. That the government should have two different numbers for the same date is symptomatic of how poor its surveillance of the outbreak is.
Add to this the fact that the state has not been able to strictly enforce the national lockdown—policemen trying to enforce the lockdown in a red zone in Howrah were assaulted and pelted with stones, while there have been reports of community events going on in some places in a business-as-usual mode—the state government really needs to get its act together.