When Super Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal on May 20 this year, it devastated large parts of the state, including the capital city Kolkata, killing dozens, destroying thousands of homes and depriving lakhs of people of their livelihoods. Coming on top of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic the cyclone created a double disaster for West Bengal.
However, the state is now witnessing a determined response from civil society groups and ordinary citizens who have plunged into relief and rehabilitation efforts in the worst affected parts, mainly North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly and poorer localities in Kolkata city itself.
Carrying relief materials to distribute, various organizations have been holding relief and medical camps throughout the affected region, treating hundreds of people who bore the brunt of the cyclone’s impact.
“We are providing medical support on our own and also through various groups like the Amphan Relief Network which are carrying out relief activities,” said Dr Punyabrata Gun of the Shramjibi Swasthya Udyog (SSU), which along with the West Bengal Doctors Forum (WBDF) has been organizing health checkups, distributing medicines and giving health advice to affected people. Over 30 medical camps have been organized so far, mostly in the Sundarbans but also in Kolkata and Hooghly district.
Food packets distributed as part of relief efforts typically contain rice, pulses, potatoes, mustard oil, salt, soybeans, soap and other essential items, which are a major help to people who are in dire financial straits due to both the two month lockdown as well as the cyclone. The relief packages also include sanitary napkins for women and milk packets for children. Some citizens and civil society groups have also set up community kitchens in several sites to ensure regular supply of food to those who have lost homes to the 240 km per hour winds and rain that hit the region.
Due to extensive water logging after Cyclone Amphan many patients complain of skin problems though doctors say many of the health problems are routine ones like back and shoulder pain or upper respiratory tract infections unrelated to the disaster. Many patients coming to the camps are those who could not access health facilities during the last two months of lockdown.
Keeping in mind the COVID-19 situation apart from checking temperatures, masks are also being distributed and lessons given to patients on importance of maintaining physical distance.
To overcome the problem of contaminated water sources which the doctors teams are teaching villagers how to generate clean drinking water using bleaching solution and cloth available at home. However, those organising the medical camps say fortunately there are not so many cases of dysentery amidst the population, as many sweet water sources set up after Cyclone Aila in 2009 are still functional.
The outpouring of support for the initiative has been very encouraging. Dozens of doctors, medical college students, health workers along with non-medical volunteers are helping out, while contributions of funds and relief supplies are pouring in from well-wishers, various organizations and ordinary citizens.
Doctors visiting the affected villages report that in several places the local people are carrying out major repair to damaged infrastructure, like broken dams, without waiting for any assistance from outside. However, some problems will need intervention and support from state agencies to overcome. Many agricultural fields for example are now filled with salt water from the sea, making farming impossible.
The large number of migrant workers returning from different parts of the country to the cyclone affected areas are also staring at a prolonged period of joblessness and possible starvation in the months ahead. The COVID-19 lockdown has already affected livelihoods in the region, mostly dependent on fisheries and the brick kilns business.
Going by experience of dealing with previous natural disasters, doctors involved in the relief work say it is also important to plan for adequate mid and long-term rehabilitation. This will require, a proper assessment of the damage due to the cyclone, mobilization of resources and new policies to cater to the overall economic, social and ecological needs of the cyclone impacted populations.
The West Bengal government has estimated loss due to Cyclone Amphan, the worst to hit the state in nearly three centuries, to be around Rs 1 lakh crore.