Dr Indranil Khan case underscores the ground reality of West Bengal where Protection Against COVID-19 is a necessity, but protection against intimidation a pre-requisite
CM Mamata Banerjee,West Bengal medical staff including doctors who are at the forefront in the fight against Corona virus have not been provided PPEs. Raincoats given to wear putting health workers at risk
Corona Virus Pandemic has challenged the human race in a way that India didn’t face since after the Flu Pandemic of 1918-19. Ten crores of then Global population lost lives in the epidemiological crisis of the last Century. Famous Bengali Novelist Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay had given a heart-wrenching description in his Novel ‘Shesh Prashna’.
Meeting the current enormous epidemiological challenge by COVID19 has been quite a task for India. Government of India has been pro-active & taken the task on war-footing. The country set an early internal lockdown in comparison to other nations to maximise prevention of disease transmission. Lockdown of 1.3 billion population was indeed a bold decision. The early lockdown was justifiably expected to help India to a significant extent had Tablighi Jamaat event not messed up the discourse.
However, even the super-colossal Global-Local crisis couldn’t halt political blame games in the multi-party Ecosystem of India & West Bengal tuned in to be perhaps the first one to kick start blame-politics regarding Corona Pandemic. West Bengal, in the last 4 decades, had never failed to be a hotbed of blame-politics. West Bengal CM didn’t delay in invoking Epidemic Diseases Act in West Bengal from March 16 itself & declared Schools, Colleges, Shopping Malls, Cinemas closed till April 15. As number of cases rose, infrastructural lacunae of West Bengal Health System started being exposed. As West Bengal Government continued to stress upon its multi & super speciality hospitals, they remained to exist as newly-constructed buildings without required manpower & treatment infrastructure. West Bengal has a crying scarcity of doctors, nurses, paramedics & technicians in hospitals as West Bengal Government doesn’t appoint them at regular intervals nor pay them the right salary. West Bengal is perhaps the only State in India that disobeyed even the Court Order to pay off the due Dearness Allowances of the State employees. As a result of such low payment, WB has a crying shortage of doctors affecting the huge number of West Bengal patients negatively. In her Administrative Review Meeting at Burdwan, WB CM declared on August 26, 2019, that West Bengal wanted to appoint 820 doctors, but received only 105 applications & ended up selecting only 39.
Corona Virus outbreak, hence, sprang up as a challenge to WB CM not only in terms of saving people from the viral outbreak but also in terms of how she’d hide lacuna in the health infrastruture of West Bengal. West Bengal doctors & health workers started murmuring that they had not been provided with even masks to meet COVID 19 patients with. A junior doctor from Calcutta Medical College & Hospital expressed his disgust in his Facebook timeline that on asking for masks, they’re being compared to street dogs who don’t die even without wearing masks.
PPE, i.e. Personal Protective Equipment is not something that’s required only to treat COVID19 patients but for any infectious disease. Hence, an Institution that’s earmarked only for virulent Infectious Diseases couldn’t logically have any shortage of PPE. But it had a shortage. But how did it happen that the Institution that dealt only & exclusively with Infectious Diseases’ also displayed crying shortage of those? This fact corroborates well with the hypothesis that doctors’ security infra of WB is perhaps the worst in India.
Bankura Deaths Trigger Fresh Corona Debate
Two controversial deaths in Bankura, West Bengal again put the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in loggerheads with the opposition in West Bengal. Dr Subhas Sarkar, a practising doctor and Lok Sabha Parliamentarian from the Bankura constituency raised a finger at the state administration for cremating two dead bodies before the medical reports could confirm their ailments. BadalHansda, resident of a village in Bankura and KishanMandi, an 18-year-old lady from a Purulia village, died on Sunday night, April 12, 2020, at the Bankura Sammilani Medical College and Hospital.
FIR filed against BJP MP Dr Subhash Sarkar, a qualified doctor himself, from Bankura,
for pointing out that people are dying because of Corona and it is not being reported
They had been admitted to the hospital with high feverand respiratory distress and were shifted to the Fever Isolation Ward of the hospital following further complications. The latter had a record of congenital heart disease. Specimens of their nasal and throat swabs were sent to Kolkata for the testing of COVID 19 on Sunday. Unfortunately, both of them passed away before the results could reach the hospital. Significantly, the test reports did not reach the hospital even after four days of the sample collection.
Even before the reason for their death was confirmed, officials of the Bankura Municipality and local TMC leaders cremated the bodies. Arun Prasad, District Magistrate of Bankura, said the relatives of the deceased had refused to take the bodies back home, upon which the district administration cremated the two corpses. This is where the opposition leaders in the State, including Dr Subhas Sarkar, insisted that the cremation was unlawful before the reasons for death were confirmed. The District Magistrate, however, said that the hearse in which the bodies were carried and the crematorium had been disinfected and all people involved inthe process had protective gears on. He also said that five members from each of the two families had been sent for quarantine.
FIR filed against BJP MP Dr Subhash Sarkar, a qualified doctor himself, from Bankura, for pointing out that people are dying because of Corona and it is not being reported
Dr Subhas Sarkar raised his point in a television debate, following which the State Government filed an FIR against him. She is neither providing the actual number of those afflicted with the disease nor is giving any clue to the death toll resulting from COVID 19. Deaths caused due to COVID 19 are being marked as something else to mislead the public. The allegations are further strengthened by the fact that in cases of such deaths in any part of the State, particularly of patients succumbing to fever and acute respiratory distress, the file of the concerned patient is required to be sent to Nabanna, the headquarters of the government in Kolkata. The doctor who has treated the patient has been deprived of the right to issue a death certificate.
The Mamata Banerjee government has decided that an expert committee from Nabanna, would examine the case file of the deceased and ascertain the reason for the death. Several associations of doctors have protested against this as a very authoritarian, humiliating and defective step.
It needs to be mentioned that scarcity of PPE is a pan-Indian issue. In some place, doctors wore even Motorbike helmet to treat COVID19 patients due to lack of N-95 masks. Yet, the scenario of West Bengal became a media sensation because there were severe pre-existing allegations of Government treasury defalcation against the present legislation. After the Raincoat issue floated up, some opposition voices in WB demanded the Government to release a White Paper on what happened to the State’s health budget allocation. Such allegations gained momentum since October 2018 when West Bengal CM didn’t co-operate with CAG who wanted to conduct a Process Audit of the State’s welfare schemes. As even the Bureaucrats of West Bengal became instrumental in this process of non-cooperation, CAG couldn’t hold the said process. Allegation of defalcation of Government Accounts & expenditure of planned sectors’ budget in unplanned sectors thus soared up in West Bengal.
There’s another issue that deserves mention here to give a feel of the true politico-administrative environment of West Bengal. To the famous SSKM Hospital of Kolkata, an influential member of the ruling Trinamool realm, Nirmal Maji had referred a dog that belonged to one of his relatives to the nephrology ward on June 10, 2015, for hemodialysis. Doctors protested as it was not a veterinary hospital & they contemplated an infection. The hospital’s director Pradip Mitra gave an instruction for the dog’s dialysis which wasn’t acted upon because the hospital was meant for humans. Since the director couldn’t dominate the hospital’s doctors, he was transferred to a nondescript hospital of WB, perhaps on punishment. After serving the prestigious SSKM for seven years, Mitra couldn’t take the insult & wanted to avail a voluntary retirement. Reading up to this, one can perhaps imagine the feudal atmosphere prevailing in WB.
In such a State, while doctors were murmuring (they couldn’t raise their voice as bizarre reactions from the administration to gag criticism was anticipated) their disgust in State Hospitals about fighting a dreadful enemy like COVID19 without proper protection, Dr Indranil Khan, an Oncologist had raised his voice & asked for proper PPE stuff from the Government. He tweeted one after another showing that doctors were being given Raincoats while nurses were made to wear waste plastic sheets in North Bengal Hospital. On March 29, he tweeted tagging WB CM the report of a famous Bengali Daily of North Bengal, ‘Uttarbanga Sangbad’, that doctors needed the real PPE as Raincoats were not enough to fight COVID19. He volunteered to provide the Government with inputs from other Hospitals of WB too & added that at the moment of supply-shortage, Government might distribute proper PPE to those doctors first who needed them the most, instead of the raincoat. At this point, I’d like to remind my readers that even the Infectious Diseases Hospital lacked a supply of PPE & that was almost a conclusive proof of serious lacuna in the dispensation of the health budget in West Bengal. Dr Khan also tweeted that as he was raising his voice in the social media against the State’s infra-deficiency, various sources tried to silence him. His sarcasm was cutting as he tweeted on March 28 evening with supporting photographs—“Welcome to India’s #RainCoatDoctors fighting #Covid19 in West Bengal government hospitals. Asked to wear #raincoats & substandard #masks instead of #PPE, these are frontline medical workers fighting #Coronavirus in WB.”
While Department of Health & Family Welfare of West Bengal replied back to him on March 29 evening that they were taking immediate steps to not only reject any defective or substandard piece (that does not conform to the Health Department’s approved sample), but also to supply the PPE of micro fibre variety subject to availability, Dr. Indranil Khan tweeted his satisfaction that WB Government had addressed his concern over inferior quality #PPE & initiated to cater to the issue with sincerity. However, the matter didn’t end there. On March 29 itself, Dr Indranil Khan received a notice under CrPC section 41A from IC Zinzira Bajar under Maheshtala Police Station, of Diamond Harbour Parliamentary Constituency. He was detained in the PS & grilled enough so that the very next morning, March 30, Dr Khan tweeted an apology. “The Govt of WB is working hard to ensure safety of frontline healthcare workers & all of us must cooperate with the Government in the greater interest of public health. I apologise in case my previous post has unintentionally created misconceptions among followers.”
Such was the level of intimidation as he mere asked for doctors’ safety requirements. Police seized his cell phone, sim card & lodged an FIR against Dr Khan under IPC section 153A. The oncologist had moved the Calcutta High Court in a writ petition against the State on March 30. On the same day, the court gave interim relief to him & asked the police to return his cellphone & sim. The court’s observations went distinctly against the State as the court observed State’s behaviour to be violative of freedom of speech under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
In this regard, the order of the Calcutta High Court stated, “Freedom of speech and expression which is granted under Article 19 of the Constitution of India has to be scrupulously upheld by the State. If an expression of opinion brings the Government into disrepute, it cannot defend this allegation by intimidation of the person expressing the opinion by subjecting him to prolonged interrogation, threatening arrest seizing his mobile phone and SIM card and so on.”
The Court added that the State might take such coercive action— “… if a citizen tries to utilise this freedom by trying to circulate alleged facts maliciously with a view to causing damage to another person or to the public at large or the nation. This could be done by unnecessary spread of fear and panic among the public for the above reason.” - Calcutta High Court
The court ordered—“For the time being the writ petitioner is restrained from making any posting in his Facebook concerning the above issue.”
Dr Indranil Khan had been the whistleblower against the corrupt & intimidating State of West Bengal. Demanding his & his family’s protection from all angles would not be unjustified. Many people have lost faith in the present Governance of West Bengal but remain silent out of utmost fear. The ground of West Bengal radiates terror for non-followers of the ruling party. Even constructive criticism of the Government actions is treated as a crime here. Hence, those who show strength to criticise, be unduly heckled. Dr Indranil Khan & likes of him, whosoever would be speaking the truth, be it about a failure of the Government, must have the space to do so until the criticism doesn’t incite any hatred. We don’t ever want a repetition of Chinese Dr Li Wenliang’s case, whose Corona virus death sparked anger in China. Wenliang was the doctor who, in the month of December, marked the fact & messaged his colleagues that COVID19 appeared like SARS - another deadly coronavirus. But he was asked by the police to “stop spreading rumours”. Wenliang’s father Li Shuying told the media that his son’s warning was proven correct. Similarly, Dr Khan warned WB Government about procuring PPE for doctors. We can’t afford to lose even a single doctor of West Bengal out of COVID 19 infection due to insufficient protection.Hope we do not face the same repurcussions of this Communist style functioning.
(The writer is a Kokata based columnist)