Why is the West Bengal Government Resisting Scrutiny of Its Covid-19 Numbers?


Why is the West Bengal Government Resisting Scrutiny of Its Covid-19 Numbers?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the states of India has been dissected in detail over the last month. But in one state, which hasn’t made the headlines as often as it should have, Covid-19 is causing a different kind of uproar.

Over the last few days, a war of words has erupted within Bengal with several opposition leaders and health experts accusing the government, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, of only testing a minuscule percentage of the population, and that numbers were being severely underreported.

Whether the accusations hold water or not is still being debated but the fact is that the state has reported an alarmingly low number of cases — 456, as compared to states like Maharashtra which has crossed the 5,000 mark — has led to some skepticism about the reliability of the government’s data.

The state’s chief secretary, by his own admission, had said only 4,630 samples had been tested until earlier this week — again much fewer than Maharashtra, which had tested about 31,000 people by April 11.

The state government has, over the last week, been locked in a battle with the central government over a medical assessment team. The Inter-Ministerial Central Team, which has been sent to West Bengal, among other states, to take stock of the cases, asked the state on Wednesday for a presentation on its preparedness to deal with the pandemic.

The central government team, on Tuesday, also accused the state of not cooperating with its investigation. A letter written by the Home Ministry claims that the team had been “specifically restrained from making any visits, interacting with health officials, and assessing the ground level situation” in the state.

Earlier, West Bengal had accused the Centre of bias, claiming that the testing kits that were dispatched were both faulty and inadequate, and that the central government teams were only being sent to non-BJP ruled states. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also claimed that the central government team arrived in Bengal before she was apprised.

Eventually the war of words seems to have de-escalated, and on Tuesday, the central team was allowed to visit parts of Kolkata.

As we cross a month of being under lockdown, hopefully this agreement will lead to more clarity over what some have been calling a deep rot in West Bengal. As several of the world’s most intelligent people have already pointed out, governments across the world will have to put up a united front if we are to have any hope of defeating the virus.