The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has deeply affected Indian states and Union Territories, and West Bengal has been no exception. Due to issues like lack of infrastructure and human resources, both rural and urban citizens were caged in the web of grief and misery wherein, even to see for the last time ones who succumbed to the coronavirus became an act of privilege.
Focusing on the rural realities around the country during the pandemic, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) and Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, organised a panel discussion on ‘Rural Realities | West Bengal Practitioners’ Experiences in Tackling the Second Wave in Indian Villages’ on May 25, 2021.
This article is an excerpt of the presentation given by Manoswini Sarkar and the IMPRI team, who provided an overview of the COVID-19 situation in India with special reference to West Bengal to set the context for the broader discussion on the topic by the esteemed panellists.
West Bengal is the fourth-most populous state and the most densely populated state, second only to Bihar. Its total population is estimated to be around 10 crore people (according to Census 2011). It is also the fourteenth-largest state by area in India. It is located in the eastern part of the country, bordered by the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Sikkim, Assam and the countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. It also contains high peaks of the Himalayas in the northern peaks and the Bay of Bengal in the South.
West Bengal has 23 districts – north 24, south 24, Bardhaman, Murshidabad, Purba Medinipur, Paschim Medinipur, Hooghly, Nadia, Howrah, Kolkata, Jalpaiguri, Malda, Bankura, Birbhum, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Purulia, Coochbehar, Paschim Bardhaman, Purba Bardhaman, Jhargram, Alipurduar, Kalimpong and Darjeeling. Some of the major cities include Kolkata, Asansol, Siliguri, Durgapur, Bardhaman and Darjeeling among others.
In contemporary times, with regard to socio-economic indicators, Bengal performs above national average on social indices in terms of sex ratio, literacy rate, infant mortality rate and overall human development index. However, SDG (14) and per-capita income ranks (20th position) are quite low.
With respect to the Covid-19 pandemic, West Bengal has been one of the worst-hit cases and high fatality rate. There had been around 10 lakh positive cases; on May 21, 2021, the State had reported around 1.5 lakh active cases. The numbers during the second wave have especially been jarring.
Experts say prolonged state elections campaign since March helped Covid cases jump especially in rural Bengal. There was almost a 40-fold increase in the number of cases, with most medical professionals blaming the mass gatherings at election rallies for the huge surge in the disease. The two worst-hit districts have been Kolkata and North 24 Parganas. The West Bengal administration was lax in handing the second wave with announcing no restrictions or curfew and has only recently announced a lockdown.
The state of West Bengal reported 12,84,973 cases till May 25, 2021. According to the health department, cumulatively, 1,86,41,290 people have been vaccinated in the state, out of which 41,30,583 have received both doses of vaccine. The daily positive confirmation rate, which was nearly 33% at the peak of the second wave, has plummeted to 3.45. A decreasing positive confirmation rate is indicative of reducing levels of Covid spread.
According to a health bulletin issued by the state government, 157 persons succumbed to the virus. Numbers continue to be on the higher side in North 24 Parganas, where 46 deaths were reported, followed by the State capital with 33 deaths.
In the month of May 2021, North 24 Parganas recorded the highest number of cases in the state at 1,11,981, followed by 96,126 in Kolkata. These two were followed by South 24 Parganas’ 33,639, Howrah’s 33,589 cases and 30,410 in Hooghly. These districts in the epicentre were closely followed by Nadia (28,088 cases in a month), East Midnapore (22,051), West Burdwan (21,732) and West Midnapore (20,015).
The state hasn’t hit its peak yet, but is already running out of oxygen beds. Consumption of medical oxygen went up from 470 MT to 550 MT. The state government plans to set up 55 oxygen plants at state-run hospitals. As of April 29, 1.02 crores vaccines have been administered. However, since May 1, 2021, most private facilities have closed inoculation drives due to the paucity of vaccines.
Though Kolkata and its neighbouring districts have been the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bengal since it began, more districts outside this hotbed of infection logged a consistent rise in cases during the second wave and emerged as areas of concern for the state health department along with North 24 Parganas, where the infection count has been far higher than the capital this time around.
Though the vaccination drive has focused mostly on Kolkata and its neighbouring districts, the government is keen on quickly stepping up inoculation in the seven to eight new areas of concern.
To mitigate the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, collaboration with relevant stakeholders is needed. Information has to be disseminated in a simple and lucid language for easier accessibility. Post-Covid care centres also need to be established to address the needs of post-virus complications.
The state government of West Bengal has set up a high-level committee to effectively minimise the impact of second wave and prepare for a third wave in moving towards healthy and prosperous West Bengal.
Contributors: Ritika Gupta, Sakshi Sharda, Ishika Chaudhary, Manoswini Sarkar, Mahima Kapoor, Swati Solanki, Chhavi Kapoor, Arjun Kumar and the IMPRI Team