“We knew that the second wave was coming and that it would be more devastating, but still the state government failed to be prepared for it despite warnings from us doctors,” Manas Gumta, the secretary of the Association of Health Service Doctors, West Bengal, told me. The AHSD is a body of the state’s public-service doctors, and Gumta is one of several health workers who believed that the All India Trinamool Congress government’s lax approach to the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the severity of the second wave. While there was a general consensus on the central government’s responsibility for the disastrous vaccination policy and the eight-phased state elections, most did not blame the centre alone. Numerous medical and policy experts said the chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s government had failed to prepare for the second wave, or even implement any strategic response after it began.
As the second wave began to spread across the country, West Bengal was no exception. On 1 March, the state saw 198 new coronavirus cases, with a total of 3,293 active cases. The elections were held from 27 March to 2 May, over eight phases, with extensive campaigning through March and April, turning a complete blind eye to the deadly pandemic sweeping the country and the state. By 1 April, the number of active cases had risen to 6,513, and the state witnessed 1,274 new cases that day. On 2 May, the counting day, the state saw 17,515 cases, with 1,18,495 active cases. The second wave appears to be slowing down, but it is still a far way off from ending, with 9,424 new cases on 1 June, and over 78,000 active cases. In this three-month period, West Bengal witnessed over 5,000 deaths due to COVID-19.
“The period before the election, when the cases had come down, the doctors’ bodies have continuously requested the government and also appealed to the political parties that they should not allow these mass conventions,” Dr Punyabrata Goon, the convenor of the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum, told me. “We have written about seven–eight letters to the government. However, we never got a response from them.” Despite the surge in cases through March and April, the state announced a lockdown only on 16 May. According to Shamik Lahiri, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a member of the party’s West Bengal state committee, “The state government has not particularly done much apart from announcing the lockdown.”
This is emblematic of the state government’s response to the second wave, which experts said has been marked by hasty policies that respond to the worsening situation, but do little to better equip the state to deal with the pandemic. As of end May, doctors and hospitals in West Bengal still complained of a lack of COVID beds, inadequate testing facilities and a shortage of vaccines, oxygen cylinders and trained healthcare staff. Phone calls, messages and emails to officials in West Bengal’s health department and the state’s cabinet committee on COVID-19 management went unanswered.
Many doctors told me that not enough tests were being conducted in the state. Expressing concern over the pandemic surge in the countryside, Gumta said the state government immediately needed to increase testing at the district levels. “Till now in West Bengal, the testing numbers are stuck between 60,000 to 70,000 and most of them are rapid antigen tests,” he said. “In most cases, the reports are coming in five–seven days and they need to wait for two–three days to get the tests done as well. So, it is making it difficult for a lot of people to receive proper treatments. It is necessary to test everyone who has symptoms and those who test positive, their contract tracing should be done but this has not been happening.”