NEW DELHI: Every night, special teams of cops and paramedics dispose of bodies of Covid-19 victims across Bengal, their act triggering tremendous protests on social media.
At a specially created incinerator close to a highway that connects Kolkata with the Sundarbans, workers are on record claiming they are disposing of large number of bodies every day. The Trinamool Congress-led state government denies the charge, saying the death toll is very low as compared to other states.
But protests are mounting over such disposals across Bengal. Last week, many were aghast to see the state government distributing Rs 100,000 each to a large number of clubs as donations. Critics claimed that the donation was offered to buy support from locals so that the ruling party could get a grip on the neighbourhoods, especially the ones affected by the deadly virus.
Worse, news of food riots has started filtering in from various parts of the state. Many posted videos showing Central aid being converted allegedly into Trinamool Congress (TMC) ration and distributed from the homes of TMC leaders across Bengal. The TMC did not offer any comment on why clubs were being paid dole during lockdown and if food riots had gripped the state.
In the last one week, over 100 videos showing slugfests between cops and local residents over such silent cremation using kerosene and other fuels have surfaced on Instagram, Facebook. The videos have also circulated among large WhatsApp groups across India and abroad.
“Disposing of bodies under the cover of darkness is one issue. The other is doing thermal scanning of people and labelling it as sample tests. This is happening in a number of neighbourhoods in Kolkata and its adjoining areas,” a top source in Kolkata told this reporter.
Many in Kolkata claim there is a serious attempt to hush up the Covid-19 cases so that the state earns brownie points in its fight against Covid-19 ever since the first case was reported on March 17, 2020, when an 18-year-old student, who had returned from London, tested positive for the virus. Even then, it was widely reported as to how the student, aided by his bureaucrat mother, violated laws and attended a birthday party and visited a shopping mall. Several officials were furious about this serious and dangerous lapse of judgement.
Reports reaching Delhi say there are huge discrepancies between what the Bengal government is claiming on record against ground realities across the state. Union Minister Babul Supriyo said the situation in the state was “very dangerous”. Supriyo, an MP from Asansol, a coal city, said on Twitter that he had found what he claimed was incriminating evidence against the state government: A note issued by the authorities of Murshidabad Medical College asking all practicing doctors of the hospital not to mention Covid-19 as the cause of death. The note has triggered a furore in Bengal, causing the state government tremendous embarrassment.
In another related case, the state government banned use of mobile phones inside hospitals, saying they are a risk as they could carry the coronavirus around. But many claimed the move was spurred by a video that went viral, of two bodies lying in a ward full of Covid-19 patients. The video was apparently taken by a Covid-19 patient inside an isolation ward at one of Kolkata’s nodal hospitals, MR Bangur. Somnath Das, a 24-year-old, who shot the video and said that bodies were lying in the ward for more than three hours, has been booked by Kolkata Police. “I am threatened every day. I am very worried,” Das told reporters in a recorded statement.
What is worse is that despite Bengal government’s repeated claims that the situation was under control, doctors and paramedics have taken to social media, used different names, and posted what appears to be gory details of the state of the hospitals and total failure of state machinery in keeping people inside their homes to avoid spreading the virus.
In some of the neighbourhoods outside Kolkata, members of a particular community have clashed with cops who protested open movements on streets and highways. Poor villagers of Bashirhat, a bordering town, took to the social media to appeal to their MP from Trinamool Congress (TMC) Nusrat Jahan to guarantee supply of ration because the area was under total lockdown. Jahan, who drew flak for posting her Tik-Tok dance video and cooking videos on Twitter, did not respond to the villagers. She merely told her followers on Twitter to remain positive.
In short, everyone is not ready to accept the claims of the West Bengal government.
Next door, Odisha Chief Minister Navin Patnaik has asked his bureaucrats to seal the state’s border to prevent entry of people from West Bengal because returnees from that state continued to fuel the Covid-19 cases in Odisha. Police have erected barricades and barriers on 57 roads connecting West Bengal and deployed armed force to keep a vigil along the border routes round the clock to ensure that there is no movement of vehicles through the routes.
How did it all start?
A serious look at the state’s health records and Covid-19 related deaths will show glaring omissions. The state’s first Covid-related death, a 57-year-old resident of Dum Dum and an employee of Eastern Railway succumbed to the virus. What was shocking was his family denied Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s statement that he had travelled abroad. Worse, the Health Department said nothing about his travel history. In fact, from that day onwards, the Health Department, in its bulletins on Covid-19, carried no details about the travel histories of the infected and dead. And as cases grew, the bulletins were constantly altered to omit certain details. This, in turn, caused panic, and many raised eyebrows about the government’s handling of the crisis. More and more reports of Covid-19-positive patients dying were filling up social media, but the official death count remained low. This was because the audit committee was busy examining each and every case. The figures were updated only with its approval.
West Bengal’s Covid-19 testing numbers have seen a quantum jump over the last week, ever since the Inter Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) visited the state on April 20, 2020. But West Bengal continues to have one of the worst testing records. From a dismal 51 tests per million population before the team arrived, the state is now testing 135 people per million population as of April 28, 2020. West Bengal, which should have reached at last 350 to 400 tests per million by now, is not even halfway there yet. The state now ranks in the bottom three, slightly above Mizoram and Manipur, claims an independent data analysis.
What is distressing is that the Covid-19 toll for West Bengal went up by three times on Friday, hours after the Central government wrote to Rajiva Sinha, the state Chief Secretary, asking for “case records” of all coronavirus-linked fatalities that had been attributed to other causes by the expert panel constituted by the Mamata Banerjee government. The panel was formed earlier this month to “audit” Covid-19 fatalities reported by hospitals in the state. The state government said on Friday that 57 Covid-19 patients had died in West Bengal, but sought to clarify that 39 of these had succumbed to “co-morbid conditions”. Coronavirus infection, it added, was ruled “incidental” in their death. Until Thursday, figures released by the state government had pegged the number of deaths at 15.
Global trends say coronavirus, which has an overall low fatality rate, is lethal for those with co-morbid conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, and the elderly. This fact raises questions about the state government’s approach to analysing coronavirus fatalities.