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Explained: Bengal's Blueprint to Tackle the Coronavirus Outbreak

The state government has created a Rs 200-crore fund to deal with the impact of COVID-19 and has mandated a relief package of subsidised ration for the next six months.

Kolkata: India has been witnessing a steady rise in the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus over the last one week, following which a slew of measures were taken by various state governments to tackle the pandemic. States like Kerala, West Bengal and Odisha have been ones to lead from the front and have been taking some decisive measures to fight any possible challenges.

Here is a bird’s eye view of how West Bengal has revitalised its state machinery to contain the pandemic.

  1. What are the provisions of testing? Is the state willing to adopt the twin policy of lockdown and mass testing?

As of March 27, 330 samples were collected and tested for coronavirus across West Bengal. Of the total number, 315 persons tested negative and 15 tested positive for COVID-19. All persons who tested positive are under surveillance as they have been admitted to an isolation ward of a dedicated COVID-19 unit at a state-run hospital.

On March 23, while administering an all-party meeting at Nabanna, the state secretariat, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said, “We have been repeatedly asking for testing kits from the central government. As of now, we have 40 kits.” Banerjee said she had flagged the issue during the chief ministers’ video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Some eminent doctors from the state recently appealed to the state governor Jagdeep Dhankhar to expedite the dispatch of the testing kits.

On March 27, the central government sent 10,000 testing kits to West Bengal in order to detect cases of coronavirus. The Print quoted a senior health department official as saying that the low rate of testing was because of the ICMR guidelines. “We cannot go for random testing as ICMR in its guidelines said that every testing reagent is accounted for, and we should test if a patient shows symptoms,” the official said.

Also read: Coronavirus Pandemic: The Policies We Need to Be Ready for the Long Haul

  1. How are the requirements of essential commodities met? How does the state government plan to distribute these resources over the next few months?

Chief spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member, Derek O’Brien told The Wire that the West Bengal government has taken a multi-pronged approach rather than function out of a singular model.

“It’s a work-in-progress model and we are constantly changing and innovating depending on the requirement of a region or district.” The state government has issued state-wide passes to online aggregators in West Bengal to ensure seamless home delivery of groceries and essentials during the lockdown.

According to the state’s recent guidelines, “…[N]o delivery personnel or delivery van carrying supplies for home delivery, a farmer or vegetable/grocery seller will be stopped or harassed by the police. Passes will be issued and it has to be honoured across different police jurisdictions, particularly when delivery personnel or vehicles have to cross different districts.”

Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee distributes masks during her visit to various markets following nationwide lockdown, in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Kolkata, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Photo: PTI

“We have to ensure there is no scarcity of food. All police stations will take responsibility to deliver food at the doorstep. That’ll be monitored by the DMs and police superintendents,” said Mamata Banerjee on March 26 during a press conference. The state government has also formed a high-level task force, which will be chaired by the chief secretary to coordinate, monitor and intervene in the movement of personnel as well as the supply of essential goods and services.

A councillor of South Dum Dum Municipality of North 24 Parganas, has undertaken a drive to deliver essential food items at the resident’s doorstep. Likewise, in Kolkata’s ward 68, councillor Sudarshana Mukherjee has been spotted on the ground with her team offering essential support in areas such as Ballygunge Gardens, Ekdalia, Kankulia, Ballygunge Place. O’Brien further said that a model has been put in place in Barasat, North 24 Parganas, where local police are helping the elderly and patients of that area. “Once that model worked for Barasat, it has been rolled out into the other districts,” O’Brien said. From March 25, the Bengal government is supplying one month of tuberculosis (TB) medicines for free in bulk to the patients.

  1. What is the state government doing to refurbish the health infrastructure? Does the state have enough testing kits, isolation wards, ventilators, protection gears for frontline health workers, etc?

According to a government notification, the state has set up a 24X7 control room which is operating from the state headquarter. The government has set up isolation facilities, with a total of 1,071 beds arranged in 87 different medical colleges, district hospitals, sub-divisional hospitals and multi-speciality hospitals across the state. The state government has involved various companies from the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector for the production of hand sanitizers.

The chief minister said, “The government is getting 6,000 litres of hand sanitizer every day. Our foremost priority is the medical fraternity, so we are distributing over 80% of the supplies to hospitals in cities and district headquarters.” The state has placed an order for 4 lakh pieces of masks, 300 ventilators, four lakh CPU machines, and few Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machines. The government has placed an order to procure more Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits for doctors, nurses and associated health workers.

Also read: Government Identifies 10 Coronavirus Hotspots, Testing to Be Boosted

“Our government has taken over hotels and guesthouses near hospitals where COVID-19 treatments are happening for doctors, nurses, and health workers. We are providing them food and transport facilities,” Banerjee said. The government has also ramped up a 500-bed hospital in Rajarhat Newtown area, dedicated only for quarantining. Howrah’s Dumurjala stadium was converted into a 150-bed quarantine centre to facilitate the rising number of patients, under the initiative of the District Administration and Howrah Municipality. At the RG Kar Medical College and Hospital in North Kolkata, a 50-bed isolation ward will be set up on a temporary basis.

Furthermore, at MR Bangur hospital in South Kolkata, an additional 150 beds would be set up for COVID-19 patients. In order to intensify the efforts of the state government to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, a 12-member expert committee was constituted from the field of medical sciences. The committee will advise the state government on issues ranging from strategising isolation and testing to expanding health infrastructure and treatment protocol.

  1. What is the economic relief announced by the state to grant relief to people who are slated to incur massive job and income losses?

The West Bengal state government has created a Rs 200-crore fund to deal with the impact of COVID-19. The government has mandated a relief package for 8.8 crore people who will get subsidised ration for free for the next six months. “In view of the coronavirus outbreak, for the next six months, the state government will give rice, free of cost, to those who used to get it for Rs 2 per kilogram,” Banerjee said.

On March 24, while interacting with the media via video-conference, the chief minister announced “Prochesta” scheme, where one-time assistance of Rs 1,000 will be given to workers of the unorganised sectors in Bengal to cushion the impact of the virus-induced lockdown. The scheme is likely to help over 60 lakh workers from the unorganised sectors such as construction and transport; it is also extended to cover domestic workers as well as migrant labours.

In a bid to ensure that senior citizens don’t run out of money during the lockdown, the state government has released old-age pensions for two months in advance. The government has also set up 27-night shelters in and around Kolkata and Howrah. Kolkata and Howrah corporations have been tasked to shifts pavement-dwellers and vagrants to these night shelters and food has also been arranged for them.

Labourers load sacks of vegetables on a hand pull cart during the nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Kolkata, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ashok Bhaumik

On March 30, chief minister Mamata Banerjee called for a stalk-taking meeting for the preparations for the COVID-19 pandemic in the state. There, she asked all district magistrates to requisition private healthcare establishments as part of a strategy to keep on standby facilities across the state to treat COVID-19 patients. “Take over private hospitals by holding discussions with the authorities for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Engage their employees in the government set-up. This will help us handle cases in a better way,” the chief minister said during a videoconference with district officials. The Bengal government has already taken over marriage halls and community halls to set up quarantine centres in the districts across the state.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee’s Turnabout Moment as She Leads From the Front in the Battle Against COVID-19

The chief minister requested the state finance secretary to increase insurance coverage from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh for all those, who are helping combat COVID-19. “Insurance coverage has been increased from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh for all those, who are helping in this health crisis, including staff at private, government, transportation centres such as doctors, nurses, police, and courier services,” she said.

  1. Finally, how is the state spreading information about its preparedness and awareness regarding the novel coronavirus?

The West Bengal government has asked all civic bodies in the state to conduct a door-to-door survey and prepare a map of regions where multiple people are suffering from fever, cough and other symptoms of COVID-19. “We have directed all civic bodies to conduct a household survey and prepare a map mentioning the number of patients suffering from the COVID-19-like symptoms in a particular area. We have asked the authorities to expedite the whole process,” a senior official from the state health department said.

Besides this, municipalities and panchayats, along with the police administration have been directed to make public service announcements on coronavirus and it’s dos and don’ts in their respective areas using mobile vans. The state government has collaborated with cable network operators and FM channels to run public awareness commercials in various channels on coronavirus. The government has also deployed mobile tableau vehicles to create public awareness on COVID-19 in the Kolkata city, a government official said.

  1. What are the challenges the state is facing at the moment?

At the all-party meeting, convened by the West Bengal chief minister, at the state secretariat, Mamata Banerjee said that the state was not getting adequate help from the central government. She said that the Centre should provide a special financial relief package to the state. She asked the state BJP representatives present at the meeting to request the Centre for a moratorium of interest payments. She further said that the central government should at least release the disaster fund for cyclone Bulbul so that the amount can be put use now to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have made multiple requests for a moratorium of interest payments to the Centre. But they have yielded no results. Under the current scenario, the Centre has to give a relief package to us,” she said. The chief minister further urged the Centre for an extension of the withdrawal limits under Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) to 5 % from the current 3% of Gross Domestic Product.

A senior government official of the West Bengal government told The Wire, on the condition of anonymity, “Right now the biggest challenge is to arrange funds, as we don’t know how bigger the problem can evolve into in the next few weeks. And the next pain point is seamless and speedy execution. Senior officials and government staff are working in war footing for over 14-15 hours every day to stay ahead of the curve.”