Mamata Banerjee has been elected Chief Minister of West Bengal for the third time, but there is little reason to rejoice as the state’s COVID-19 situation threatens to implode.
As the second wave of the pandemic struck, West Bengal was subjected to mass election rallies over the course of a month, with 1,26,663 active cases of the coronavirus as of 10 May. The number of regular cases in the state has risen dramatically since March 27. During this time, the state’s infrastructure has already begun to show signs of bursting at the seams.
As Soon As They Are Added, Hospital Beds Are Gone
The shortage of hospital beds is the first sign of panic, which has hit Kolkata first and then the rest of the state. For weeks, private hospitals have been at their peak, and more are being added every two or three days. According to a representative of AMRI Hospitals in Kolkata, the beds are almost immediately booked after they are added. “100 beds are occupied in a matter of minutes”, he said.
The Bengal government launched an exclusive COVID portal to reflect the real-time availability of beds in government and private hospitals even before taking the oath as Chief Minister. Admission to government hospitals is only possible via the Swasthya Bhawan or the Health Department, and patients can use the portal to upload their COVID-positive report.
At the time of writing this report, five of the eight government hospitals in the North 24 Parganas had no vacant beds, while the other three had 1, 12, and 8 beds. As of 10 May, Kolkata and the North 24 Parganas had the highest caseload in the state, accounting for roughly 20% and 19% of all active cases, respectively.
The government is turning sports stadiums and other complexes into COVID-care centres in order to increase the number of COVID beds in the state. Experts are concerned, however, that the rate at which beds are being added is not fast enough to keep up with the rate at which diseases are spreading.
Oxygen and medicine are sold on the black market.
West Bengal’s medical oxygen demand has risen from 230 metric tonnes (MT) to 360 MT (per day) in the last 10 days, according to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s latest letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi dated 7 May. According to government estimates, the demand will peak at about 550MT per day in the coming week. When this letter was written, West Bengal was receiving 308MT of medical oxygen a day.
However, citizen volunteers in Kolkata have been complaining about a shortage of oxygen cylinders and medical oxygen black marketeering for weeks before this letter was published, in reality, even before the elections ended. Oxygen cylinders in Kolkata, which normally cost about 8,000 rupees, were selling for as much as 60,000 rupees on April 23.
“We found out that certain suppliers were charging over 20,000 rupees or in some cases as much as 60,000 rupees for one 40 litre oxygen cylinder”, said Nayantara Basu, a volunteer with a COVID-help group in Kolkata.
If black market hoarding of medical oxygen continued when the state’s oxygen supply was plentiful, the government would need to consider how it will deal with the situation when the state’s oxygen supply falls short of its total demand.
Testing and vaccination are at a standstill.
Testing and vaccination are probably the state’s biggest challenges right now. West Bengal’s testing rate is abysmally poor, with just around 60,000 people tested every day. This is less than the number of tests conducted in Delhi, a single district.
According to epidemiologists, the city’s testing facilities are overburdened, and the real issue is a delay in test results. Because of the high volume of tests performed and the limited facilities available, RT-PCR test results take an average of 48-72 hours to appear. Some pathology labs are also citing 5-6 days for report delivery.
When called on 10 May, the Dr Lal Path Lab in Kolkata, for example, said they didn’t have any testing slots available for the next seven days.
The Districts’ Impending Crisis
The number of cases in the district is increasing by the day. This is concerning because the districts lack the facilities to handle such a high volume of cases, which are then referred to as Kolkata, causing a healthcare bottleneck.
Furthermore, in places like North Bengal, there is only one major COVID hospital serving 6-7 districts, resulting in infrastructural deficiencies.