Dengue outbreak in Bengal: Mamata Banerjee's focus is on controlling the spread of news, not virus
West Bengal is staring at an outbreak of dengue which has reportedly reached the proportions of an epidemic. Instead of tackling the problem, the Mamata Banerjee government is more interested in suppressing data and arresting those who dare reveal the truth.
When a government declares war on news about a disease more than the disease itself, it becomes clear how deep the insecurity is and where the priorities lie.
West Bengal is staring at an outbreak of dengue which has reportedly reached the proportions of an epidemic. Instead of tackling the problem, the Mamata Banerjee government is more interested in suppressing data and intimidating those who dare reveal the truth.
Lack of preparedness, civic apathy, administrative failure, ham-handed attempts at suppressing data, denial of the scale of the problem, blame-shifting and bullying of those who dare open their mouths: This latest eruption of vector-borne disease has slammed home many home truths about the state of affairs in Bengal.
The most startling thing is that nobody has a clear idea about the number of people affected or killed by what appears to be a virulent strain of the disease. The chief minister, who is now on a tour of the UK, has made matters worse by a series of apparently contradictory statements.
Early in October, she put the number of dengue-related deaths at 30 and reeled off statistics to claim that the situation is worse elsewhere and she is being wrongly held liable. She also blamed private clinics for "causing panic.
According to a 12 October report in The Telegraph, the figure of 30 was actually misleading because many state-run hospitals had been asked not to mention dengue as the cause of death in certificates. One official was quoted as saying by the newspaper that "high fever with thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) is mentioned as the cause of death without a direct reference to dengue."
Mamata revised the figure to 34 on 25 October and blamed the Opposition in the state for causing alarm, once again claiming that there have been more vector-borne related deaths in BJP-ruled states.
Curiously, on 30 October, during a news conference at the state secretariat, the chief minister slashed the dengue death figure to 13, claiming that other 27 deaths may have been caused by "malaria, dengue or swine flu".
Since these deaths occurred in private hospitals, she said these cannot be classified as "dengue deaths without checking blood samples."
The focus seemed to be on controlling the spread of news, not the virus. The district of North 24 Parganas ranks, for instance, is reeling from the scourge. Deganga, a community development block under the Barasat Sadar subdivision, is among the worst hit.
In his ground report, Sougata Mukhopadhyay of News18 found that government figures are vastly understated. They have been rejected even by some doctors who put the figure at "at least 200-300". In some hamlets nearly every household is affected, in some 20 have died in a month alone.
The report quotes Sikandar Ali Mullick, the relative of a patient, as saying that "the situation at Deganga is such that we have no choice but to perish to this disease one by one. I have never seen such pestilence in my life. It’s spreading from one village to another. And we have no relief from the administration. Not even spraying of insecticides or bleaching powder."
The number of dengue deaths have reportedly crossed 150, while 1200-1400 patients are being treated "at the outdoor unit of the Deganga rural hospital every day", according to the Block Medical Officer of Health (BMOH) who has also been quoted in the News18 report.
If these create a bleak picture, the chief minister is dismissive. She claimed during a news conference in October that "in Deganga only one person had died due to dengue. But news reports give the impression that there has been a death parade." She appeared more intent on blame-shifting. Accordingly, newer and newer excuses were invented.
We were told that the Centre is responsible for the spreading of dengue because Metro railway construction sites are not being cleared; the BJP is responsible for "playing a negative role and indulging in dirty politics"; the climate is responsible for breeding of Aedes Aegypti and last but not the least, private labs are responsible "for spreading and giving an artificial spurt to the disease for business reasons."
Meanwhile, the state government told Calcutta High Court that along with climate, "Huge movement of people during the long holiday season in October" could be behind the outbreak of dengue.
If that is the fear, the Mamata Banerjee government should have learnt its lesson from history and moved fast to limit the scope and scale of the disease.
Outbreak of mosquito-borne ailments this time of the year is common among tropical countries. Bengal has fallen prey repeatedly in the past.
Why were the steps suggested by National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme not uniformly implemented?
Weakness of government institutions and failure of capacity-building affect many states in India and West Bengal is no exception.
It is understandable that when a disease takes on the proportions of an epidemic, the state's resources would be stretched beyond its limits.
The question is: Why didn't Bengal declare the dengue outbreak as an epidemic, which would have made it easier to direct funds and human capital resources towards battling the menace?
Scroll's Aritra Bhattacharya quotes Dr Sajal Biswas of Service Doctors Forum, an apolitical unit, as saying that "when the average case load or death rate for a disease goes slightly above the preceding ten-year average, the outbreak is considered an epidemic."
In Bengal, according to Biswas, "The ten-year average in Bengal was breached three years ago, and the numbers have only been rising."
Sadly, instead of implementing either the disease control steps or admitting to the scale of the problem, the state government appeared more intent on clamping down on dissenting voices.
A senior doctor employed with Barasat district hospital was recently sacked for revealing on Facebook details that the state government doesn't want us to know.
Mamata's defiant statements betray an arrogance that doesn't sit well with the depth of the crisis. She still talks of taking "strong action" against people who are "creating panic".
The chief minister must understand that the disease is not spread by panic, but mosquitoes.
And the pesky insect cannot be browbeaten into submission like the doctors.
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