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COVID-19 testing triggers full-blown row in Bengal, Mamata government says not hiding figures

KOLKATA: As COVID 19 continues its depredation across India and the world, a major row has erupted in West Bengal, with many in the medical fraternity and opposition parties claiming the state is reporting fewer cases as only a minuscule proportion of the population is getting tested for the inscrutable enemy.

Till Saturday, the state had reported 233 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 12 deaths, far lower than other big states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

The constitution of an expert audit committee to certify whether the deaths have occurred due to the coronavirus pandemic or other underlying ailments, called comorbidity in medical parlance, instead of by the doctors who treated them, has led to growing scepticism about the reliability of the state government data.

The National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), ICMR’s nodal COVID-19 testing facility in Kolkata, had recently said the state government is not sending enough samples for tests.

“There is a big drop. Last week we didn’t even have 20 samples per day. The number of samples being sent is determined by the state government, so if they send more samples, we are able to test more. I think sample collection has not been as per the recommendation. So the number of tests being done in Bengal is also less,” its director Dr Shanta Dutta had said recently.

Responding to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s complaint about the paucity of testing kits, she said ICMR has dispatched 42,500 kits to NICED so far and that there is no shortage.

According to the state’s chief secretary Rajiva Sinha, a total of 4,630 samples have been tested by Saturday and West Bengal is now conducting over 400 tests every day.

As of April 11, worst-hit Maharashtra had tested 31,841 samples, Rajasthan 24,817, Kerala 14,163 and Delhi 11,709.

The number of COVID-19 positive cases given out by the state and the Centre are also at variance with each other.

The West Bengal government said on Saturday that the number of those afflicted stood at 233, while the Union ministry of health and family welfare website put it at 287.

Objecting to the formation of the committee to declare the cause of the death of a coronavirus patient, Union minister Babul Supriyo said only the doctors treating them should certify the reason for the death.

“After all, everybody ultimately dies of heart failure. multi-organ failure,” he said, adding there has been an attempt to “hide” the COVID-19 cases and fatalities.

Some senior medical practitioners in Kolkata PTI spoke to said the “hush-hush” approach is worsening things and hindering aggressive testing to tackle the disease effectively.

“The number of tests should be increased immediately in order to estimate the spread of the contagion. As most patients or suspects are asymptomatic, we need to have more sample testing,” a senior physician said.

Chief Secretary Sinha said the state has its own limitations as it cannot start testing in any laboratory because only the facilities authorised by the ICMR can conduct the COVID-19 test.

“In terms of testing, we have a limitation as we all know that the approval comes from ICMR. We got permission for the Malda unit only a few days back,” he said.

He said permission has been sought to conduct the test at the medical college in Murshidabad, RG Kar Medical College and hospital, Kolkata, Burdwan Medical College and Bankura Medical College.

The state currently has eight ICMR certified labs including NICED and the state-run SSKM hospital where COVID tests can be conducted.

Opposition parties have accused the TMC government of not doing enough to stem the rise of coronavirus cases and hiding facts.

If you go through state-wise data of big states, you will find the number of tests conducted here is far less than elsewhere.

Despite the Centre providing testing kits in abundance, for reasons best known to the state government, they are conducting fewer tests,” West Bengal BJP president and MP Dilip Ghosh said.

Ghosh said the state government has made a “mockery” of death figures by referring the matter of deceased patients to the audit committee.

The leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, echoes his view.

This demarcation of corona and non-corona deaths is a mechanism to hide facts, he said.

He called the audit panel a “truth suppressing mechanism.”

Derek O’Brien, the TMC’s leader in the Rajya Sabha, claimed West Bengal’s numbers are better than most states as the government here has worked hard to contain the spread of the disease.

“We in Bengal are focussed on the task at hand. We are carrying on with our work. It is this that has ensured Bengal’s COVID-19 numbers are better than most. We have worked hard, been first movers and prepared early to keep these numbers low,” he told PTI.

He admitted that it is a work in progress and there is no room for complacency.

“The rumours and mischief have to be responded to – with facts, figures and public health logic. We are fighting Corona. The opposition parties in Bengal are fighting Trinamool! Putting politics before a health emergency is a shame,” O’Brien said in a message to this news agency.

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