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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

High tests, doctors on call: In Bengal Covid curve, a VIP exception

Also, as the Opposition points out, for being a constituency represented by Abhishek Banerjee, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and the ruling Trinamool Congress’s No.2.

Written by Atri Mitra | Kolkata |
Updated: January 14, 2022 6:58:21 am
53,000 ‘test record’ in nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s Diamond Harbour seat; state average 65,000. (Express)

It is being called the ‘Diamond Harbour Model’. In West Bengal, currently grappling with a Covid rise (1.16 lakh active cases), low testing (65,000-odd per day since start of the year), high positivity (nearly 31% as of January 12) and a Kumbh-scale Gangasagar Mela for which pilgrims started arriving Wednesday, this suburb of Kolkata certainly stands apart: for a “country-wide record” in daily testing for a constituency on January 12 (53,203), for low positivity (2.5%), and for banning any gathering.

Also, as the Opposition points out, for being a constituency represented by Abhishek Banerjee, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and the ruling Trinamool Congress’s No.2.

The contrast between the rest of West Bengal and the VIP seat stands stark at a time when the graph of Abhishek, the MP from Diamond Harbour, is on a steep, undisputed rise since the TMC returned to power.

It has been four days now that buzz started around Diamond Harbour and Abhishek’s “Covid management”. Even as the state earned the High Court’s wrath for refusing to scale down Gangasagar Mela numbers, and went ahead with civic polls in two municipalities, Abhishek held a well-publicised meeting with officials of South 24 Parganas district on January 8, where he was said to have given “suggestions” regarding his constituency.

Says Sub-Divisional Officer, Diamond Harbour, Sukanta Saha, “He inspired us. We worked accordingly for the next two-three days and have already got positive results in terms of curbing Covid cases in Diamond Harbour.”

Among Abhishek’s “suggestions” were banning all political, social and religious meetings up to February 28; a dedicated control room and WhatsApp number for every panchayat and municipality for the public; doctors on call; a doctor-on-wheels facility; strict compliance of Covid protocols; and setting up of isolation facilities.

The one suggestion of Abhishek that really got officials going was that on January 12, Swami Vivekanand’s birth anniversary, the administration hold a massive testing drive, aiming to reach a target of at least 30,000.

Says Saha: “In 20 hours that day, we collected 53,203 random samples, of which 1,151 were positive. So, the positivity rate is only 2.16%.” The random tests were held for free, at government camps.

The TMC is vociferous in its praise for the young MP. Wrote mouthpiece Jago Bangla: “Abhishek Banerjee is a man of his words. He did what he said.” Minister of State for Health Chandrima Bhattacharya congratuled Abhishek, tweeting: “There is no better way to celebrate Swami Vivekananda’s birth anniversary than serving people and ensuring their well-being!… You are an inspiration for many.”

As for the rest of the state, the government is dragging its feet on testing, even as West Bengal has been identified by the Centre as one of the states of concern. A senior Health Department official said they could not afford mass testing as “it is a costly exercise”. “We are giving priority to self-testing and doing tests in places where numbers are very high.”

The testing numbers in West Bengal, which were 62,413 on January 6, stood at 71,792 on Wednesday, the highest for the month so far. The positivity rate meanwhile has risen from 24.70% to 30.85%, and case numbers to 22,155. Amid the second wave last year — for instance, May 12, when new cases stood at 20,377 and the positivity rate was 9-10 per cent – the average sample size for testing would hover around 70,000 daily.

In comparison, Delhi, which saw 28,867 cases at a positivity rate of 29.21% on Thursday, saw 98,832 tests.

The Health Department official said there was no cause for worry as of now. “Hospitalisation numbers are low in this wave and fatality also low so far. But, we are preparing for a further rise and making sufficient arrangements for liquid oxygen, as that was the main challenge in the second wave.”

Testing isn’t the only thing on which Abhishek is charting a separate path over Covid. Asked about the Gangasagar Mela, he recently said, “I believe all religious events and political campaigns should be halted for the next two months… (It is my) personal opinion.” He has also called for postponement of the coming Assembly elections in five states. About the Bengal municipal polls, he said: “The matter is sub-judice and it is for the High Court to decide.”

Earlier, he cancelled a Goa tour due to Covid, even as Banerjee held a very public round of the state where the TMC is hoping to make a mark.

On Thursday, two TMC leaders openly took on each other over Abhishek’s Covid stand. While MP Kalyan Banerjee questioned both the ‘Diamond Harbour Model’ and the position taken by Abishek on gatherings, spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said the party was fully behind Abhishek.

Senior CPM leader Sujan Chakraborty questions the disparity between Diamond Harbour and the rest. “Test kits are declining in the state and are increasing in Diamond Harbor. The rate of infection is increasing in the state and it has decreased there. All this is being done to make a place a model.”

Says state president of Congress Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury: “The so-called Diamond Harbour Model is blown out of proportion… The entire State machinery has been deployed, depriving other parts of West Bengal of medical facilities. All the health workers including doctors were deployed to make the MP’s area look good.” Could an Opposition leader like him command the same facilities from the government, Chowdhury adds. “Is there a parallel government in Diamond Harbour?”

Curiously, he notes, Banerjee himself is silent on the matter. “Not a single word has been uttered by her. Why? Does she support the model or not? Does it have her blessings?… Mamata Banerjee’s trusted lieutenants have also taken a strong exception.”

BJP spokesperson Shamik Bhattacharya says that if the model is so inspiring, the CM should implement it all over the state. “Everyone should be tested, everyone should get a mask.”

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