During the peak of the second surge of the deadly killer virus in summer this year, parts of urban India were trapped in daily despair — amidst a non-stop spiral of dying, death and desperation. The mighty Indian State led by a ‘powerful’ Hindutva icon had literally withered away, and the rich and the poor were on their own, left to their destiny as it were, as the shadow of stark sadness stalked the emptiness of the urban landscape in lockdown.
The circumstances were truly horrifying: a senior Delhi-based journalist, with an oxygen cylinder at home, would seek a bed in at least 50 private and government hospitals, but to no avail. Finally, he would get a bed with no oxygen in a cricket stadium without doctors or nurses, and only volunteers with tea and biscuits. As his oxygen cylinder started depleting, his wife had to rush to organize a cylinder – and carry it to the stadium – since there were no ambulances around and the private ambulances anyway charged a packet.
There were professors of elite colleges in Delhi, their entire family stricken with the disease, driving their own cars, from one hospital to another, unable to get a bed or oxygen cylinder. Certain medicines and oxygen cylinders moved into the black market quickly at huge rates. Hundreds of ordinary folks waited on pavements outside the hospitals, with no luck. Social media was full of desperate calls for help, medicine, beds, oxygen. Known and unknown, friends and relatives – they were all dying, or waiting for a stroke of hope. It was a deathly chaos all around and there was no miracle waiting to happen.
While parking lots, parks and footpaths were turned into crematoriums in certain locations, or the skyline became black with the smoke of the burning bodies elsewhere, certain governments like in UP erected make-shift barriers outside the cremation sites to block journalists from reporting the relentless funeral processions. There would be endless queues outside crematoriums and graveyards for a funeral or burial, while hundreds of dead bodies were found floating in the Ganga, or, buried with a saffron landmark on the sandy shores of the river in UP.
Patients in the Hindi heartland, and in Maharashtra and Gujarat, literally, were gasping for breath. And, in Gujarat, they fudged the numbers of the dead; but the newspaper pages were full of obituaries.
Not so in West Bengal. The Covid situation was much better managed here, even at its peak, even when all the hospitals were full and patients were waiting outside the Emergency ward in Kolkata’s government hospitals. The ‘safe homes’ were full, but they were not critical patients. There was a scramble for beds and private hospitals had their share of profit, undoubtedly. Private ambulances charged huge amounts to transport Covid patients.
However, the government hospitals, with totally free medical and health care, like the sprawling Bangur and Beleghata ID hospitals, were superbly managed, doctors, nurses and frontline health workers stretched their limits 24X7, and patients from across the class spectrum were treated with great efficiency, equal dignity and care. The state’s Swasthya Sathi health insurance scheme, launched in 2016, provides basic health cover for secondary and tertiary care up to Rs. 5 lakh per annum per family. In December 2020 the scheme was extended scheme to cover the entire population of the state.
West Bengal also has the maximum number of hospital beds and ventilators in the public sector in India. As per a recent study, ‘COVID-19 in India: State-wise estimates of current hospital beds, intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators’, which used National Sample Survey and National Health Profile data, Bengal has 78,566 beds and 1,964 ventilators, in government hospitals – the highest in the country.
Thanks to all this investment in healthcare infrastructure, even in the most difficult phases, the crisis did not reach the state of abysmal failure and chaos as in Delhi, and, other northern Indian cities, where the health infrastructure basically collapsed.
In the state-of-the-art Beleghata ID Hospital, for instance, known now as one of the best and most specialized Covid hospital in India, there was a huge rush and beds were not easy to get either in the general ward or in the ICU during the early phase of May when the second surge peaked in Kolkata. However, there was no scarcity of oxygen or important drugs at any stage during the second surge, and medicine and food was free for patients admitted in the hospital, with patients under constant supervision in the wards.
Outside the Emergency section of the hospital, many patients waited for a bed all through the day. Even in the night, as ambulances rushed to the hospital with patients gasping for breath, the rush was not overwhelming – though the hospital was almost always full and beds were not easy to get. Doctors and nurses would rush out of the Emergency to measure the oxygen levels of patients wanting to be admitted. A senior doctor wrote down a full prescription for a patient regretting that there was no bed available, he should take this medicine, stay at home, and come back in the morning. And, yet, there never was a huge queue outside the Emergency; the rate of infections had shot up, but the situation never really became impossible.
In March and April this year, just before the second wave of Covid hit West Bengal, the vast countryside had seemed totally devoid of the fear of the epidemic, as this reporter discovered while covering the assembly elections. From the high profile constituency of Nandigram in East Midnapore, to Thakurbari and Bongaon in North 24 Paraganas, to the famous Phurpura Sharif sufi shrine in the Hooghly district, Covid seemed to have disappeared from the countryside, even as the second wave ravaged other parts of India. Thousands were attending election rallies. No one wore masks, well, almost no one, in the rallies, on the streets, or in market places. Most rallies had no physical distancing and no masks – the prime minister celebrated one such huge BJP rally near Asansol in the last phase of the elections in April.
In rural areas in Bengal, the markets were open, daily wagers were looking for work, local trains were full of passengers returning from Kolkata. The ‘shared autos’ were fully occupied — no one wearing masks. The Howrah and Sealdah railway stations in Kolkata were packed with people. Bow Bazaar, the crowded retail market in Kolkata, had thousands coming in and going out.
Covid restrictions were enforced for the first time in the state by the Election Commission after the results of the elections were announced on May 2. Despite the perception that a new ‘Bengal strain’ has emerged, as the virus mutated, and that every second person in Kolkata was testing positive, there was no panic in the air. Due to the fear of Covid, the Trinamool Congress had asked the Election Commission (EC) to hold the last phase of the elections in one phase in April. The EC refused.
Even before the election results were announced, Mamata Banerjee made a series of ‘official announcements’: that the entire administrative and health machinery be in full alert, the fight against Covid was her first priority, oxygen had been procured from the industry, all hospitals were fully prepared, and several safe homes and back-up temporary hospitals had been created.
Meanwhile, free vaccination for those above 45 stopped due to the unavailability of vaccines. Thousands of citizens were waiting for their second dose, as in the sprawling state-of-the-art Bangur Hospital in South Kolkata, run by the state government. There was an air of uncertainty all around.
Then the second wave arrived. The number of cases rose very high, there was a scarcity of beds, the private hospitals made a lot of money; and, yet, it was not a mass tragedy as it happened in the Hindi heartland. Nor did the health infrastructure and the administrative machinery collapse, as in many parts of India, with doctors, nurses and health-workers – in full control of the crisis, especially government hospitals, which gave fully free medical treatment to all patients. West Bengal and the city of Kolkata responded with reasonable efficiency and sensitivity to the Covid crisis in the midst of a lockdown and all hospitals in full alert.
Parts of civil society in Bengal responded too with great concern and care. Independent citizens joined in to help. A young IT professional tied up with his friends and the government to provide quick Covid tests during the peak period when it was getting difficult to get tests done and the results were coming in very late. This team would send a technician in 24 hours to the house of the patient and the results, fully verified and registered in the government website with the Aadhar card number of the patient, would be delivered the next day.
Others, men and women, quickly set up home-made kitchens, delivering food to the patients who were too weak , many of them living alone, The Jadavpur Commune, runs by students and former students, which provided food throughout last year on the streets to vendors, workers, daily wagers, bus drivers, even cops, continued their work, with the food cooked in the special Jadavpur University community kitchen.
Similarly, the Street Hawkers Association, like last year, continued to provide dry rations to people on the streets and in working class areas. The Bangla Sanskriti Manch provided food, oxygen cylinders, medicines and ambulances even in remote areas, especially in Birbhum. Meanwhile, the West Bengal Doctors Forum,, a forum for protection of rights of doctors and patients, created an accessible 24 hour telemedicine consultation service. The ‘Red Volunteers’, young and committed activists of the Left, worked across Kolkata and in remote parts of Bengal, using social media and a highly-efficient network to help Covid patients who were seeking out beds, oxygen, medicine, food, counseling.
“We do it for our peace of mind. We are not doing social work or philanthropy. We have to just do it. We can’t sleep peacefully, otherwise. And we do it without any discrimination, whatsoever. We are responding to a huge crisis and human suffering. We just can’t sit at home and watch it all. It is our responsibility,” a Red Volunteer told this reporter.
Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata