Bengal’s villages hit harder by Covid-19 this time compared to cities
West Bengal’s Bolpur block in Birbum district reported 15 Covid-19 cases in March. In April, the cases shot up to 617. The block, where 90% of people live in rural areas, earlier reported 160 and 170 infections in October and November when the disease reached its peak in the state. The exponential rise in Covid-19 cases in Bolpur coincided with the West Bengal assembly elections in March and April. An official added the scenario is almost the same in other rural areas.
Birbhum reported an 11-fold increase in the daily count of Covid-19 cases compared to last year’s peak on Wednesday with 928 infections. On October 22, when West Bengal witnessed the peak of the first wave with 4,157 new cases, Nadia, another district in south Bengal, reported under 200 cases. On May 12, the district registered 1,171 cases, a rise of six times over last year’s peak. Just like Birbhum, Nadia has over 72% rural population.
Urban areas like Kolkata and its adjoining district of North 24 Parganas have been reporting the maximum cases. Kolkata reported 3,989 cases and North 24 Parganas 4,091 on Wednesday. The rise is still less than five times that of the last year’s peak.
Experts have blamed the elections as the primary reason behind the exponential rise in Covid-19 cases in rural Bengal. The increase is more than that in urban areas.
“Every political leader boasted of huge gatherings in their rallies not knowing what harm they were doing. Covid-19 spread rapidly even in the rural areas as huge political rallies were held in the villages, sans any safety protocols. This came at a time testing, tracing and treating had gone down,” said Abhijit Chowdhury, a health expert, who was a part of the advisory panel set up by chief minister Mamata Banerjee last year.
The first phase of the eight-phase elections was held on March 27. The poll process continued for over a month.
Active cases in Paschim Bardhman, East Midnapore and Hooghly have shot up four to six times over last year’s peak on October 22. Compared to this, active cases in Kolkata and North 24 Parganas, two urban districts, have shot up by around 3.5 times during the same period.
Experts said that while during the first wave, the Centre imposed a country-wide lockdown and quarantine centres were set up when migrant labourers returned to their homes, this time the movement was unrestricted.
“During the first wave, the lockdown was imposed. When migrant labourers, more than a million of them, started entering Bengal in buses and trains, they were first quarantined. But this time there were no restrictions. People moved from urban areas to rural areas freely resulting in the spread,” said Sukumar Mukherjee, another expert, who was part of the panel set up by the state during the first wave.
On May 7, when West Bengal registered over 19,000, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan said that some districts in the state were registering a 40% positivity rate. Officials said the positivity rate of the state was 29% on May 12, stressing the need for more testing and restrictions.
“While we were testing around 45,000 per day in October-November last year when Covid-19 cases were raging, at present we are testing around 69,000. Cases have shot up almost five times now since last year’s peak. But have we been able to increase our testing proportionately?” asked Manas Gumta, general secretary of a doctors’ association.
Even as Balram Bhargava, the head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, has said restrictions should remain in place in all districts, where the rate of infection is above 10% of those tested, Banerjee has ruled out a total lockdown across the state.
Several restrictions have been imposed in the state. They include cancellation of local trains and restriction on market timings. RT-PCR tests have also been mandatory for entering the state while political rallies have been banned.
A health department official said efforts are also being taken to ramp up health infrastructure in the rural areas. “All rural hospitals and primary health centres in the villages have been asked to set up isolation beds, oxygen facilities and ambulances,” said the official, requesting anonymity.
Officials said around 105 hospitals up to the sub-division level have been equipped with piped oxygen. By May 15, piped oxygen will reach another 41 hospitals, which would also add 3,000 beds.
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