Covid-19: Oh, to be rich and famous in Bengal

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Are all health screening processes in place in Bengal?
Are all health screening processes in place in Bengal?

A young student’s open defiance of safety rules relating to the Covid-19, the highly contagious disease caused due to novel Corona Virus that has triggered a global panic has snowballed into a huge controversy in Kolkata where cosying up with the rich and powerful has often helped many violate laws.

On paper, it looked like a simple case of Gourab De, an 18 year-old student returning from London, and walking through the airport security net unaware of the crisis. What is important is the fact that he walked away from the airport in a flight that landed in Kolkata from Abu Dhabi despite being told repeatedly that he needs to do some mandatory tests because De was coming from the UK, a high Covid-19 zone. 

But Gourab did no tests and went home. And then, he walked around some of the most congested places in the city and even visited a plush shopping mall for the next 48 hours. There are unconfirmed reports that he even partied with some of his friends. For those two days, his mother, Arunima De, a special secretary in the Home Department, went ahead and took part in several government meetings. Doctors at MR Bangur Hospital said Gourab confessed that some of his friends in London had tested positive. 

And when the news exploded, many felt the boy defied rules only because he had an influential mother. Worse, when the tests happened eventually, the boy tested positive. The good news was that Gourab’s parents and the two drivers of the family on Wednesday tested negative for the disease. Their samples were sent to the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), Kolkata on Tuesday night. However, state health department sources said they would be kept at the isolation centre in North East Kolkata’s Rajarhat for 14 days and tested again.

Doctors in Kolkata said they were aghast at the boy’s attitude and that of his parents who refused to admit there was a serious flaw in Gourab not getting himself checked and Arunima and her husband’s attending office. “We are keeping his parents in isolation because unless there is a minimum level of viraemia, it cannot be detected by tests. It means the virus may be there in your body, and this could spread to others. We call this window period. We will go for tests again,” Dr Arindam Kar, a critical care specialist, told reporters in Kolkata.

State health department officials are now tracking and putting in quarantine all the people the boy met in the two days he moved about in Kolkata, their job made difficult because not many are admitting they met the boy and his parents. Since the mother of the patient is a bureaucrat, senior state government officials have been isolated at home. And now, 17 co-passengers of Gourab have been put in isolation at home. The big question is: Would they have been quarantined if Gourab had not eventually given himself in for checkup and subsequent admission at the hospital?

So what gave him the power of defiance?

Gourab is presently admitted at Infectious Diseases (ID) hospital in Kolkata. A doctor and two health workers of MR Bangur Hospital, which the boy visited, and the family’s domestic help, have been put in home quarantine.

Authorities Wednesday sealed the area in Nabanna, headquarters of the state government, where Arunima De had a room. Though workers sanitised the state secretariat, an estimated 19 officials who worked with Arunima De, were apparently reluctant to work with her on the same floor.

Worse, fear has gripped the plush Upohar Housing Complex — a cluster of buildings with 15 to 16 floors — in South Kolkata where the family lives. A member of the complex’s housing association said all towers were being sanitised and it was grossly wrong on part of the parents not to intimate the association about their son. “It is because of their callousness, more than 500 families including many elderly people staying in the complex feel vulnerable,” said a member of the association. The member said the association was identifying all those who came in contact with Gourab through CCTV footage. Two domestic help, a yoga teacher, and security guards who were on duty for three days (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) have been asked to go on leave for 15 days, two thermal guns have been arranged for checking the temperature of everyone entering the complex. “Everyone is very, very scared.”

So the big question remains as to why the family delayed their son’s visit despite being told twice to go to the Infectious Diseases (ID) hospital in Beliaghata, a densely populated neighbourhood that lies close to India’s biggest soccer stadium. The neighbourhood is also popular for being the home where Mahatma Gandhi spent the midnight hour of August 15, 1947 when India gained independence from the British rule. 

This is just one side of the story.

Now reports are coming out that two top film stars of Bengal, including one Member of Parliament (MP), did not restrict their travel to London after the Corona virus scare spread panic across the world. Jeet and Mimi Chakraborty, a Trinamool Congress MP, returned on Tuesday from London, where there have been several cases of Covid-19. Chakraborty, however, said  she has done the mandatory tests and would remain in home isolation for the next seven days and won’t even meet her parents as a precautionary measure. Still, the recent incidents drew sharp criticism for the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government, especially in the light of Banerjee’s initial comment on the issue and how she trivialised the scare and accused the Centre of using the Corona Virus scare to deflect from real issues.

Now, no one is answering how the stars travelled to London to shoot a film in the middle of a global crisis. 

This is not all. Bengal has other serious issues to handle. Reports say a large number of construction workers have travelled back to their homes in Murshidabad and Malda from Kerala, where the total number of Covid-19 cases tested positive stood at 24, including two foreigners. One was from Italy and another from the UK.

“But there has been no screening at Howrah station where trains come from Kerala. This is a serious lapse,” said a top government official in Kolkata. The official, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, said all attention in Bengal — and also across India — was centred around airports. “The railway stations are not getting that kind of medical attention which is visible at the airports. So people coming from high Covid-19 zones are of high risk category.” As of now, no checks were conducted on those constructions workers who returned from Kerala, putting all of them — numbering a little over 1,000 — at risk with others in the region.

Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, at a programme at Nabanna Wednesday, said: “People coming from foreign countries are welcome. But the disease is not. Please go for tests voluntarily. Even if you give a declaration that you are well, go for isolation for 15 to 27 days. If one does not do this and goes to a shopping mall or to a party, more people will be infected. I do not support this. Be it a VIP or a commoner, everyone coming from outside should go for tests. No one should use someone’s influence and avoid testing. Yesterday’s incident is a glaring example. He did not go for tests despite doctors urging him, and went around the city. This is reckless behaviour.” She further said shifts at government offices will end at 1600 hours so that staffers can beat the rush in buses and trains and reach home early. Banerjee did not comment on how Gourab avoided the tests, nor did she comment on how the film stars went to shoot abroad in the middle of a global crisis. 

Strangely the West Bengal Education Board continues to conduct its examinations in Bengal

Banerjee also remained silent on why the West Bengal Education Board continued its annual examinations despite the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) suspending such tests. Many teachers in Kolkata who protested against the move were told by school principals not to create panic. As a result, a large number of students and teachers continue to attend classes and appear for examinations in total violation of norms set by the Central government. “We have no choice. If we protest, we could be suspended,” said a harassed teacher in a telephonic conversation with this reporter.

Critics say the recent spate of incidents ranging from Gourab avoiding the mandatory tests to construction workers coming from Kerala and going home without being checked raise serious questions about the quality of the state government’s quarantine moves. Many feel the state government may not come out with the right number of Covid-19 patients and brush some figures under the carpet. Last year, many hospitals and newspapers allegedly scaled down dengue figures after 23 died from the mosquito-borne infection. The unofficial figure was double the official estimate. An estimated 44,000 contracted the virus. This reporter was told by an editor how the state government delayed government advertisements to a particular daily in Kolkata which had used a banner headline for dengue deaths. “The bottomline was clear, treat dengue but do not name it,” said a source.

Expectedly, now many now asking very, very pertinent questions like whether Gourab informed the airport authorities about his travel history from the UK? And also why is it the state government — till date — has not named officials who — so considerately — allowed him to go home when he already had symptoms and not done the mandatory testing. It is not immediately known if Gourab’s mother influenced the officials. Even if she did not, how come she went to office and had a series of meetings with other officials? And finally, how could Gourab, a student at Oxford University, not restrain his outdoors movement?

There is a deathly silence at the TMC headquarters. Kolkata has once again proved that entitled people from the powerful class can easily flout the law. And yet, no one will ask any questions.

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