The West Bengal government is yet to implement stern ground-level actions in the four COVID-19 hotspot districts recognised in the state and continues to function in a clandestine manner, even though more than 48 hours have passed since the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) identified the ‘red zones’.

The MoHFW on Wednesday released a list of 170 districts that were classified as the COVID-19 hotspots in the country. The list included four districts – Kolkata, Howrah, East Midnapore and North 24 Parganas – in the state where the West Bengal Health Department (WBHD) says 162 COVID-19 cases have been reported, while the MoHFW website claims the number to be 287.

No containment zones

As the first step to begin work in the COVID-19 hotspots or in the red zones, the MoHFW guidelines have directed the States/Union Territories/District administrations to identify containment zones – area within a particular radius from where a cluster of COVID-19 cases has emerged.

“There shall be strict perimeter control in the area of the containment zones to ensure that there is no unchecked inward/outward movement of population from these zone except for maintaining essential services (including medical emergencies and law and order related duties ) and government business continuity,” the central government guidelines say.

West Bengal government, in that regard, is yet to name a single containment zone in the four hotspot districts of the state. However, the Chief Secretary of the state, Rajiv Sinha, on Thursday said that they have taken complete containment measures in certain areas in the red zone districts.

“The thing is we were told to mark containment zones and make special arrangement there in the four districts from where repeated cases are coming. We have taken complete measures for the districts that were mentioned,” Sinha said in a joint press conference with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the members of the Audit Board formed by the state government to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, a WBHD official speaking to The Statesman on condition of anonymity said, “There’s no hotspot as such in West Bengal. The four districts everyone is talking about has been marked by the Central Government. Though, there are some areas in the state where some special actions are likely to be taken.”

A report in Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika suggested the same and said that the state administration has bifurcated from the guidelines issued by the Government of India and are framing their own policies to contain the rise of the novel Coronavirus in the hotspot districts.

Instead of identifying the areas – where a large cluster of cases have emerged from – as containment zones, the state government is calling them the ‘Core’ and ‘Buffer’ zones.

Supposedly, a complete lockdown would be imposed in the core zones and essential items are to be distributed door to door there. Whereas in buffer zones people would be allowed to move out of their residences with special permission. But, the state is yet to name a single area from both the zones.

However, a report carried by The Telegraph on Saturday claimed that several slums in Kolkata have been completely sealed and the officials are mulling to initiate home delivery of essentials items there. A call each to the Chief Secretary’s office, Principal Health Secretary’s office and Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) Chief Medical Officer’s office, to know about the areas and the guidelines followed there, was answered either with “I don’t know” or “I’m not the authorised person to talk about that”.

Rapid testing

In the guidelines issued by the MoHWF to combat the deadly virus in the containment zones, the second and third strategy include:

• Active search of cases, early isolation, contact listing and tracking, quarantine and follow up of contacts.

• Testing all suspect cases, symptomatic contacts, asymptomatic direct and high-risk contacts of a confirmed case and SARI cases as per the guidelines issued from time to time.

While the first has been followed to a good extent in West Bengal with more than 36 thousand people in home observation/surveillance and another 2,816 in hospital isolation (the data was taken from the official website of WBHD). The website further claims that a total of 21,476 people have completed surveillance and 2,310 have been discharged from hospital isolation.

The West Bengal government, though, has failed to effectuate the guidelines about testing in the containment zones. With only 4,212 test till April 17 and around 50 tests per million people, the state fares among the lowest in India to test samples for COVID-19.

In contrast, the trend in hotspot areas across the country and around the globe has been to increase the number of testing in a drastic manner. In Kerala and in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, aggressive testing was the key to withdraw an area from the containment zone.

According to the containment plan laid by the Union Health Ministry, local administrations are required to survey in the hotspot areas for people with influenza-like and severe acute respiratory illness (SARI) symptoms.

Reportedly, in several areas in Howrah, the authorities are conducting door to door thermal screening of the locals. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has also taken a similar modus operandi in certain wards under it.

However, after receiving 5 lakh units of serologic rapid testing kits from China on Thursday, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said that the thermal screening would be followed by rapid testing – done to detect the anti-bodies against the novel coronavirus – during the surveillance in the containment zones.

But, the latest press release of “Cumulative Unit wise Daily Logistics Supply in West Bengal for COVID-19”, dated April 17, 2019, on the official WBHD website, did not mention anything about the anti-body or rapid testing kits in the state.

Several states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Delhi did not bother to wait for the central government and ordered rapid testing kits from their own budget. West Bengal, on the other hand, has arrogated a relatively tight-lipped approach and not much information has been shared about the same.

“These questions that you all have been asking about door to door testing… The central government – whether on lockdown, relaxation, restriction – the Union Home Ministry, cabinet secretary, health department, health ministry, everyone has said that everyone will work together,” Chief Secretary Sinha had said on Thursday after being asked about the rapid testing kits and when are they due to be delivered by the Government of India.

“Be assured that there is no lack of efforts from the West Bengal government and there is no deficit in planning. We are doing everything that is necessary,” he added.

Markets to remain open

Scenes of people flocking at the markets across Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal have surfaced daily since the lockdown was announced. And the Chief Minister on Friday reaffirmed that the markets, including those in the four red zones, will continue to remain open but with some extra measures.

Banerjee said that entry points of all the markets would now have hand sanitizers for people to wash their hands before entering. She further said, “People without masks would not be allowed and to maintain strict social distancing armed police forces would be stationed in the markets of the red zones.”

“We will not shut the markets, but in the red zones they must be closed by 10 am. Restrictions have to be imposed against gathering and there should not be more than five at any shop. Social gatherings and adda must stop for now,” the Chief Minister added.