It has been nearly three weeks since the first coronavirus case was recorded in West Bengal. The son of a bureaucrat had flouted doctors’ orders after returning from London and, instead of getting himself tested, went around town. Since then, the state has seen 90 more covid-19 cases with three deaths.
Bengal is dealing with the crisis in its own unique way. In Kolkata and its suburbs, vegetable, fish, meat and poultry markets, in fact, have been bursting at the seams with people during the morning hours. A random check reveals that few people pay heed to the requirement for maintaining distance.
At the crack of dawn, in front of Satyanarayan Bhandar, a grocery store in the Kolkata suburb of Garia, a queue of shoppers wait for the shutters to go up.
“I only keep my shop open for four hours in the morning, and during this time the crowds are huge,” says the grocer, pulling down the shutters sharply at 11 am.
He says that Bengalis love to eat and unless the emergency deals with eatables itself, they will not stop buying food.
However, the morning rush of shoppers has worried health officials.
“People need to understand that we are dealing with a virus that spreads through touch and the risk of contagion increases in crowded spaces,” said virologist Dr Amitava Nandy.
The city’s roads are more reflective of the lockdown. Few vehicles ply the usually busy highways and flyovers. Pedestrians don’t loiter aimlessly as earlier, with parks and pavements looking deserted.
Evening is descending over Birji, in suburban Kolkata, and at a cluster of shanties, a group of men, women and children are sitting around singing.
The residents here are unskilled labourers. The women work as domestic helps or cooks in the households nearby. “Those of us who earn monthly salaries are less worried because even though we are not working, we will get paid,” says Shompa. Her husband holds a job as a driver with a private company, but her friend Mamoni’s husband is a construction worker and she is worried.
Bengal’s relatively low tally, compared to other large states, has been attributed to what has been called “the state government’s timely intervention”. Professor Om Prakash Mishra, Trinamool Core Committee member said in an interview: “As soon as the first case came to light, (chief minister) Mamata (Banerjee) swung into action.”
After chairing a series of emergency meetings with the police, doctors and administrators, among others, she issued public dos and don’ts, which included strict orders to people who came to Bengal from outside to quarantine themselves. Contact tracing was conducted, followed by tests.
Several coronavirus treatment and quarantine facilities have been subsequently opened in Kolkata with existing facilities such as M.R. Bangur Hospital converted into a dedicated coronavirus treatment centre over and above the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Beleghata.
Of course, it is not far from everyone’s mind that Bengal goes to the polls next year. There has been some grumbling by the opposition that Mamata has been using covid-19 countermeasures as a “photo op”.
Disagreeing that Bengal has set an example of efficient handling of the covid-19 crisis, political rivals have questioned the veracity of the statistics. But neutral voices pointed out that the national statistics are independently collected and the Union health ministry does not rely only on state figures for its records.
Dola Mitra is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.