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Covid roars back to life after Durga Puja in Bengal

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By Sujit Bhar

Even as the country celebrates a billion doses of vaccine administered across the India, West Bengal is fast sliding into a return of containment zones, of a return of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. Now, there is a distinct threat of a third wave.

This was very much expected. With the state going into a stupid frenzy before and during the recently concluded Durga Puja, spreading wings for marketing without masks, swarming the puja pandals, also without masks, throwing to the winds standard social distancing protocols, this was bound to happen. It seemed as if the memories of the coronavirus and the innumerable deaths were a matter from another age. Nobody cared, least of all the administration.

Sujit Bose, a senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) functionary and the fire brigade minister of the state, known to be close to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, organised the Sreebhumi Puja on the eastern fringes of the city near the international airport. The pandal was novel, resembling the Burj Khalifa skyscraper of Dubai. But there were two other novelties. First was the open invitation to all and sundry to enter the narrow lane leading to the pandal. As a result, hundreds of thousands rammed into the small spaces like sheep, running towards the pandal as if their lives depended upon it. There was no distancing and even the police was at a complete loss as to how to handle this.

Secondly, searchlights from the pandal to the sky were so bright that it affected pilots. As the pilots complained, the police and the minister were forced to shut the lights, as well as the pandal, down. This was shameful.

Later Banerjee, who herself had been inaugurating pandals and pujas from almost three days before the actual pujas were due, said she did not know about this puja’s specialties. “Had I known, I would have stopped Sujit from doing this,” she said in public, little realising that nobody, but nobody, believed a word of that.

What has been the result of these acts of blatant stupidity? The state administration has now started re-introducing containment zones to check the spread of the virus. The scare of a possible third wave is real. It has been reported that containment zones have already come up in Howrah and North 24 Parganas districts adjacent to Kolkata, the capital.

The daily count of Covid-19 cases across the state is now around the 1,000-mark, reaching this level after three months of apparent peace. According to a senior health department official, “While 974 new cases were detected in the state on Saturday, on Sunday, the number shot up further to 989. Such a high number of cases was last detected in July this year when the second wave was on the decline.”

That is scary. And this is the same administration which had cried foul over the eight-phase election process forced on the state by the insensitive officials of the Election Commission of India, acting virtually in cohorts with the ruling dispensation at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At that time, Mamata Banerjee had said this was done to intentionally spread the virus across the state, to jeopardise the possibility of a TMC comeback. Having won the elections on a landslide verdict, Mamata Banerjee seems to have forgotten those terrible days.

Possibly the pujas would are immune to all that, or so Mamata had thought. Now, the positivity rate in the state is shooting up. It was 1.7% on September 24 and had moved to 2.1% by October 10. On Sunday, it was 2.3%. These are official figures (which have always been on the low side). Covid ICU wards in hospitals are again already near full capacity.

Finally, the administration has stirred. One official has said: “Under such circumstances, the state government and district administrations have decided to bring in the containment zones. The night curfew, from 11 pm to 5 am, which was lifted during the puja, has been imposed again.” It is a well-known fact that Covid-19 viruses (even the Delta variants) go out on search-and-destroy patrols at night, after day-long rest.

It has been reported that 56 containment zones have already been declared in North 24 Parganas. There are 14 such in Howrah. While government numbers are completely unreliable, even that is scary.

Kolkata is getting deeper into the pit. On Sunday, Kolkata reported 273 new cases. This was the highest number of fresh cases among the state’s districts. North 24 Parganas registered 146 cases and there were 83 cases reported from Howrah. Buses ply regularly across these districts. Even though suburban trains are not officially running, several trains called “staff specials” run on a regular basis on almost all routes, and all and sundry are welcome to take a ride to and fro. How the railways are allowing this is a mystery.

Again, as expected, health experts are blaming the huge gatherings during the Durga Puja and rampant violations of safety norms. “During the puja days, there were huge gatherings outside pandals and people from Kolkata and outskirts hit the streets in thousands. Covid-19 protocols were rampantly violated,” Dr Manas Gumta, general secretary of the Association of Health Service Doctors in the state, has been reported as saying.

Says famous physician Dr Sukumar Mukherjee, a member of the expert committee that was set up in 2020 to advise Mamata Banerjee on pandemic-related matters: “Covid-19 safety protocols were rampantly flouted during the festive season. Many were not wearing masks, leaving aside social distancing and sanitizing. Two weeks following the puja would be very crucial.”

Why was it necessary?

The question is, why was all this necessary? The answer can be found if we go a just little back in time, till the time of the election campaigns.

The BJP had hit one nail on the head, when it had harped on “development” and job creation as a campaign plank. By the end of the second term of the Mamata government, the entire TMC machinery had not been able to attract even a single big ticket (nor even a mid-size) industry to the state. The TMC job and opportunity promise to its cadre brigade never materialised. The syndicates were back, and industry was gasping, especially within the devastating Covid atmosphere.

Mamata seemed completely clueless as to how to rejuvenate the industrial base of the state that the CPI(M) had so clinically destroyed through 34 years of misrule.

The BJP, however, tried to incorporate other agenda, such as anti-minority programmes and religious and caste-biases in a state that has rejected such nonsense. That killed the BJP’s hopes, but the TMC failed to realise that jobs were still needed, the hungry still needed to be fed. As the cries of help grew after the elections, Mamata did the only thing she knows: move public attention to other, more inane stuff, such as the pujas, the cultural jamborees and even election ideas for other states (Goa).

Mamata Banerjee needs these pujas to keep her cadres happy. And the sheep she rules over are happy with such lollipops. The coronavirus fate is only a natural corollary.

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