Kolkata: West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee government’s decision to empower a new death audit committee to pronounce whether a patient has perished due to Covid-19 has resulted in opposition parties smelling a ploy to suppress the number of casualties due to the dreaded infection.
While the state government has done some flip-flops to now settle for a death count of five, opposition parties and unofficial sources have claimed the figure of the deceased was at least 11.
However, a key member of the expert committee of doctors assigned to advise the state government on tackling the outbreak termed the government move as “very scientific” and as per “international norms”.
“The five-member death audit committee has been rightly formed to settle such disputes. Since I am not a member of the audit panel, I can’t say whether they have had a sitting, or what the outcome is. But death auditing is very scientific. It is done all over the world,” Mukherjee, a leading medical practitioner of the state, told IANS.
When questioned about the allegation that the government was suppressing the death count, minister of state for health Chandrima Bhattacharya refused to comment. “I won’t say anything on this. If you have anything to ask, put your queries when pressers are held, but don’t ask me,” she said.
Sources said the government has also asked hospitals to find out various details and place it before the audit committee for it to take the final decision on whether the deceased passed away due to Covid-19. Once the panel finds all the answers satisfactory, it would declare a person has died of the viral disease.
The information would include the person’s travel history, other ailments or long term complications, the level of immunity, presence of diabetes, hypertension or lungs diseases and the details of fever.
The dispute began last Wednesday – April 1 – when hospitals and health officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, had by early afternoon confirmed six deaths due to Covid-19.
However, at 5 p.m., Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee held a presser, halving the death figure to three, claiming three of the deceased had comorbidity — a medical term to denote the presence of one or more additional conditions co-occurring with a primary condition.
Lashing out at the media for claiming that the death toll was soaring in the state, and castigating some nursing homes for “trying to gain publicity” by highlighting their patients had died of the viral disease, Banerjee said one of the deceased had pneumonia, another hand cardiac issues, and the other one was suffering from chronic kidney failure.
There were more twists a day later.
Expert committee member and eminent pulmonologist Dhiman Ganguly in an afternoon media conference gave the total death count as seven, that included four people who passed away in the previous 24 hours.
About three hours later, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha held another round of video conference with journalists. He claimed the number of deaths was three, and echoed the chief minister’s logic to state four of the deceased had comorbidity.
Sinha also came up with some statistical jugglery to project a lower figure for the viral infection in the state, by highlighting the number of active cases at present, rather than the total number of persons testing positive.
In another interesting development, the state health department for the first time since February four, did not publish any bulletin on Thursday. Friday also turned out to be a no-bulletin day.
Finally, when Sinha came for the Covid 19 briefing on Saturday, he had to face a barrage of queries from the media for the absentee bulletin. The top bureaucrat promised it would be back, and denied there was any “design behind not putting figures on the website”.
The bulletin made its reappearance that evening itself, but with some modifications in format. There was no death tally. It also mentioned only the number of active cases, without giving any figure of the total number of infected in the state from the outset of the outbreak.
BJP MP and noted gynaecologist Subhas Sarkar described the state government approach as “childish” and expressed apprehension it would do “tremendous harm” to the society.
“In a death certificate there is always a primary cause and secondary cause. There may be a patient who is originally ill due to cardiac disease, or respiratory disease. But if there is any observation of Covid 19, it should be reported that the case is a-associated with Covid 19. They are suppressing the facts including the death figure,” Sarkar told IANS.
“They are doing a tremendous harm to the society. This would prompt the people to drop their guard and violate the lockdown. Whenever wrong statistics are presented, naturally judgments and later decisions won’t be proper. I suggest the state government give daily report to the centre Aon number of Covid 19 tests, names and addresses if these people, and the test results.”
Backing the chief minister and Sinha, Mukherjee said details like immediate cause of death, contributory cause of death or illnesses unrelated to death, are all scientific data. “If somebody dies of pneumonia, then it has to be looked into whether the pneumonia was caused by corona, or there was some other cause”.
CPI-M state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra demanded the government withdraw its directive on gleaning 34 pieces of information about the deceased.
“Expert panel is made of experts. They need a free hand. If the government lists out the process for ascertaining the casue of death, then the panel cannot function. The number of deaths due to the disease is being fudged,” he said.