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Even as Calcutta HC Curtails Durga Puja Festivities, Bengal Braces for COVID Surge

Even as Calcutta HC Curtails Durga Puja Festivities, Bengal Braces for COVID Surge

People shop in the New Market area ahead of Durga Puja, in Kolkata, October 18, 2020. Photo: PTI.

Kolkata: The Calcutta high court on Monday designated all Durga Puja pandals in the state as ‘containment zones’ and barred entry for visitors during the week-long festival – even as the West Bengal state government has been installing measures to tackle the expected surge in COVID-19 cases.

Durga Puja this year is expected to begin on October 22 and wind up around October 26.

In a significant verdict, a division bench of justices Sanjib Banerjee and Arijit Banerjee said that in view of India’s coronavirus epidemic, a five-metre area around small pandals and a 10-metre area around large ones will be cordoned off as containment zones and will have to be barricaded with ‘no entry’ boards. The area has to be measured from the outermost point of the pandal.

In addition, only 15 to 25 organising members will be allowed inside puja pandals. The names of these people will have to be notified outside the pandals and cannot be changed on a daily basis. Apart from them, no one else is to be allowed inside. The court has also asked the Kolkata police commissioner and the director-general of West Bengal police to file affidavits by November 5 describing compliance with the order.

Third, observing that 32,000 police personnel will have a tough time enforcing physical-distancing and other protocols during the festival, when lakhs of people will be on the streets, the court asked the state, the police and puja organisers to ask people to not go pandal-hopping. It also suggested organisers live-stream the puja instead, for devotees to watch online at home.

A number of popular puja organisers in Kolkata, including those at Santosh Mitra Square and Jodhpur Park, had already announced that they would conduct puja behind closed doors this year. The Ramakrishna Mission headquarters is also planning to disallow devotees from assembling at the temple’s premises on puja days. All rituals will be live-streamed instead, they said.

According to state health department data, West Bengal reported 3,983 new COVID-19 cases and 64 deaths on October 18 (when this article was written). The state has thus far reported 3.2 lakh cases and 6,056 deaths thus far – with 33,927 cases active at the moment.

The rate of new infections has been rising from the beginning from October in the state even as the national trend has been dipping downward since mid-September. In fact, West Bengal is currently the Indian state adding the most new COVID-19 cases per day.

As for treatment capacity – the state has 1,247 critical care beds at present to treat patients with COVID-19 in government hospitals. Chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay said the government has also resolved to add 600 more beds (in ICUs and high-dependency units) because it expects the number of COVID-19 cases to surge after Durga Puja ends. Of these, 48 beds have already been added to the ESI hospital at Baltikuri, Howrah, and another 56 are to be added at M.R. Bangur Hospital, Kolkata.

A further “496 beds will be added to other hospitals in the next two to three weeks,” Bandyopadhyay added. The detail break-up of these additions is not yet available.

According to state officials, it has also recruited over 2,475 staff nurses and brought down the cost of COVID-19 tests at private facilities from Rs 2,250 to Rs 1,500 each.

To facilitate immediate medical attention to patients by local general practitioners, the state has decided to keep single-chamber doctors out of certain provisions of the West Bengal Clinical Establishment Act.

The state has also intervened to cap private ambulance charges – asking the West Bengal Clinical Regulatory Commission to bring down the rate to an acceptable level.

Next, the government has decided to convert two hospitals – Baranagar State General Hospital and Gobardanga Rural Hospital – both in north 24 Parganas district, one of the worst affected parts of the state, into dedicated COVID-19. These will have 100 and 50 beds, respectively.

The Kolkata Medical College will add 100 beds to its existing capacity of 660, and private hospitals in the city are together expected to add another 500, the health secretary said. This is in addition to the already increased number of beds. On August 20, the total number of COVID-19 beds in private hospitals amounted to 2,617; on October 18, this figure had climbed to 3,233.

Also read: COVID-19 Risk: Kolkata Hospital Fails to Protect Staff, Test Patients

Artists work to construct a pandal ahead of Durga Puja, in Kolkata, October 19, 2020. Photo: PTI

However, there has also been a steady hike in the number of patients over the last fortnight, so doctors fear this planned increase in the number of beds may not be actually be worth much.

“All private hospitals are 90 to 100% full. Then, for a period of five to six months, patients with heart or kidney ailments, cancer or other diseases had stopped coming to hospitals,” senior cardiac surgeon Dr Kunal Sarkar told The Wire Science. “Now, with life coming back to ‘normal’, those patients are coming back. So there may soon come a situation where a hospital is forced to make a choice – whom to admit and whom to not.”

Times of India reported on Monday that in almost all private hospitals along the E.M. Bypass (a major road on Kolkata’s east), there were more patients on waiting lists than the total number of beds the government has promised. So hospitals expect the beds to be occupied as soon as they’re made available, leaving very few – if any – for patients post-festival.

State health secretary Narayan Swaroop Nigam spoke to medical superintendents designated COVID-19 hospitals over video on Saturday, October 17, and discussed future courses of action. Four things found special mention in Nigam’s instructions to these hospitals:

1. Increasing the number for-COVID-19 beds across the state

2. Tracing and treating asymptomatic patients

3. Increasing number of safe-homes so that only critical patients could get admitted to hospitals, and

4. Stocking up on medicines, steroids and equipment for festival days

The state is also planning to appoint protocol supervisors and a clinical coordinator in each district.

On October 19, Nigam reviewed the situation in another meeting with district magistrates, with chief secretary Bandyopadhyay and the top police brass of Howrah and Kolkata also present. During this meeting, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee spoke to officials over phone and asked them to be prepared on all fronts.

Speaking to The Wire Science on Sunday, chief secretary Bandyopadhyay said the government had done what was necessary to stop the spread of the virus during the puja.

“We spontaneously cancelled this year’s immersion carnival that is organised by the government, and is attended by thousands of people, including foreign dignitaries,” he said. “We are not allowing shops, fares or cultural programmes in the vicinity of the pandals. We asked organisers and the common people to desist from going overboard with rituals like pushpanjali. We encouraged physical distancing and we have not allowed any elaborate pandal inaugurations.”

The Wire Science also reached out to a number of administrators at government-run COVID-19 hospitals. Most of them declined to comment – although the deputy medical superintendent of a government medical college said, “There is no dearth of oxygen cylinders. Masks and PPEs are being centrally procured by the health department and supplied to us. We are not facing any scarcity.”

A private agency that supplies medical equipment to government hospitals, including to the Kolkata Medical College and IPGMER, confirmed that they had been alerted about a possible hike in demand in November.

However, one doctor treating COVID-19 patients at Kolkata Medical College said the use of oxygen cylinders – and not pipeline oxygen – was an issue in most government hospitals. “Many COVID-19 patients need to be administered high-flow nasal oxygen round the clock,” he told The Wire Science. “So cylinders keep getting exhausted and all of a sudden a patient gets desaturated. The cylinder is replaced only when a doctor or a nurse notices this. Pipeline supply of oxygen should have been highly effective in COVID-19 wards.”

In its Monday order, the Calcutta high court also acknowledged the state government’s steps – but said the sizes of crowds turning up at a few pandals on Sunday night raised questions over its ability to implement the measures. If schools and colleges have been shut for six months, how can people be allowed to come out on the street for a festival, it wondered. Earlier, it had directed puja organisers to spend the state’s sop of Rs 50,000 to buy masks and hand-sanitisers.

Dr Sarkar, who is also vice-chairman of Medica Hospitals, said the court’s verdict could be seen as a starting point as far as putting in place a proper disease-control mechanism was concerned.

Also read: Are We Finally Seeing a Light at the End of India’s COVID-19 Tunnel?

However, he was also sceptical of the state’s proposed addition of 600 critical care beds within a fortnight. In his estimate – “without being too puritanical” – a critical care bed entails enough oxygen supply, a way to monitor blood pressure, oxygen saturation and ECG 24/7, a doctor and three or four nurses “for 10-15 beds”.

So, he continued, “I don’t think it is possible to increase critical care infrastructure in the state by 50% within a couple of weeks,” he said. “If someone is claiming to achieve this – either they have never added beds to any health setup, or they don’t know anything about critical care.” He added that in his hospital, leaves of all doctors and paramedical staff have been cancelled during the puja.

Late on Monday, the Forum for Durgotsab, a collective of various puja organisers, decided to challenge the Calcutta high court order in the Supreme Court. “It is too late to call off Durga Puja,” Avishek Bhattacharyya, an assistant secretary of the forum, said. “The livelihoods of thousands of people are linked with pujo. We think this order would push their lives into complete darkness.”

Indradeep Bhattacharyya is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.

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