The state of West Bengal, which witnessed massive rallies through its unprecedented eight-phase elections, seems to be sitting on a time-bomb of the second wave of coronavirus as it crossed the one lakh mark of active cases on Tuesday, a figure that has doubled in just the last ten days. The final phase of the Bengal polls is due on Thursday.
Evidently, whoever wins the polls on May 2, will have to be on a war footing to first tackle the spiraling cases of Covdi-19.
Here are the five things that West Bengal must do, learning from the experience of worst-impacted states like Maharashtra and Delhi, to avoid going the same path as these states.
1. Lockdown in Kolkata
The capital city of West Bengal is also the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the state, with more cases now being reported from urban centres close to Kolkata such as North 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly districts. There are nearly 24,000 active cases in Kolkata but no lockdown is in place given the last phase of polling will cover some Kolkata seats on April 29 and the counting is on May 2. Kolkata is seeing a very high positivity rate of close to 40%, indicating that restrictions are needed on the movement of the people and for them to stay indoors through an enforced lockdown.
Similar restrictions would also be needed to be put in place in cities like Barrackpore in North 24 Parganas district and adjoining areas of Kolkata like Rajarhat New Town.
2. Ramp Up Testing
West Bengal is testing about 50,000 samples daily as of now, a capacity which has not been ramped up significantly since the first wave when a high of 47,500 tests were done on September 14, last year. The worrying part now is that the state is reporting four times the number of daily cases (16,000) than the high of the first wave (about 4,000 daily cases last July), but the number of tests conducted daily remain almost the same.
West Bengal needs to double its daily testing capacity to one lakh to get a true picture of the COVID situation. A silver lining is that most tests done in West Bengal are RT-PCR.
3. Build up capacity for more Oxygen and ICU beds
The ground situation in Kolkata is worrying as it indicates that the state needs to urgently create more Oxygen and ICU beds with the help of DRDO and central armed police forces. As per the state government, 140 hospitals with 12,352 beds are marked for Covid patients and only 43% of them are occupied.
However, only 1,838 of these beds in the entire state are ICU or High Dependancy Unit (HDU) beds. The total number of beds have fallen since last year. The state government said it has 11,500 additional beds in Safe Homes but they are not expected to have ICU or Oxygen facilities.
The Calcutta High Court has asked the state government to submit a report by May 3 on steps taken to avoid shortage of beds and Oxygen supply. The state government has said it is launching an online portal soon to give information to the people on availability of beds and to help then make requests for admission.
4. Make arrangements for more Oxygen
The state government has maintained that there is sufficient Oxygen supply in West Bengal and there is a dedicated supply in place to 105 hospitals, however, the experience of Delhi has shown that Oxygen shortage can arise in no time once patient admissions increase in hospitals. The government has said 55 new Oxygen generation plants will be set up in the state, but the need immediately is to arrange enough Oxygen tankers, place requests for Oxygen Express trains for West Bengal and coordinate with Indian Air Force if the state needs to fly out empty Oxygen tankers for refilling to other states.
Neighbouring states of West Bengal, like Jharkhand and Odisha, have enough Oxygen plants too.
5. Vaccinate in Mission Mode
West Bengal has been among the leading states in vaccination, with numbers crossing one crore vaccinations so far, but the effort needs to be ramped up further with the 18-plus age group being opened up for the jabs from May 1. Even though CM Banerjee has said that the state has put aside Rs 100 crore for the fresh vaccination exercise, but that may not be enough at all given the prices fixed for supply by both the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech.
The state government should state how many vaccines it has ordered to vaccinate the 18-plus age group and by when they will arrive, given that both TMC and BJP have said the vaccination will be for free.