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Opinion | Bihar must take steps on war footing to tackle COVID pandemic

A tremendous surge (49,300) in the number of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday has brought the total tally in India close to the 13 lakh mark (12,7,945). India is currently in third place after the US and Brazil. The total death toll has crossed 30,000 in India which now stands at sixth place in the world death toll tally.   The dreaded is spreading fast in the rural hinterlands of Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Telangana, Karnataka and UP. The Centre held urgent video consultations on Friday with state governments of these eight states to chalk out an action plan to arrest the spread of the pandemic.    Andhra Pradesh leads with the highest single-day spike in new cases, followed by 10 other states. Nearly eight thousand new cases were detected on Thursday in AP, followed by 6,472 new cases from Tamil Nadu. Nearly one lakh new cases have been added in the last two days in India, leading to a big surge in the total tally.    The Centre has decided that no school children will participate in this year’s Independence Day rally at the Red Fort, and only 250 dignitaries will be invited to sit in the stands. All police personnel on duty shall be wearing PPE kits.    Let us recap how the pandemic took a turn for the worse in India since the first case which was recorded on January 30 in Kerala. During the five months from January 30 to June 30, 5,66,000 cases were recorded, but from July 1 till July 23 (total 23 days), India recorded nearly seven lakh new cases. The statistics are indeed frightening. The only solace is that more than half of the COVID patients recovered and were discharged.   The health care system is failing in several states. Despite repeated appeals by the Centre and state governments for people to practice caution, lockdown rules and social distancing norms are being openly flouted.    On Thursday, the Jharkhand government decided to bring an ordinance to slap Rs one lakh fine on people not wearing masks in public places and up to two years jail to those who flout lockdown rules. The Jharkhand government had to take this extreme step to arrest the pandemic. There has been 6,761 COVID cases and 65 deaths in Jharkhand. Though I believe Rs one lakh fine is too steep, but it can surely act as a deterrent for those who move around on the streets without masks.   The situation in neighbouring Bihar is more worrying. The healthcare system there is tottering on the brink. COVID patients are unable to get beds in hospitals, while those already admitted to hospitals are suffering due to negligence.    On Thursday, India TV telecast a video from Rohtas district, which showed healthcare workers wearing PPE kits taking a dead COVID patient to a crematorium in Bikramganj block. The body was duly wrapped in sheet. After laying the body on the pyre, they set it on fire, but even before the body was fully burnt, the workers walked out. A few minutes later, stray dogs feasted on the half-burnt body. Local villagers made a video of the entire act. There is a densely populated locality nearby  and people are living in fear of the dogs who had feasted on the virus-infested body.    There is another example of sheer negligence. A man, Chandan Kumar, in Araria district had gone to the district hospital for a COVID test. He filled up the form, but since the testing kits were exhausted, no test was done. He went home, but two days later, he got a call from a health worker saying that his report was positive, and they were coming in an ambulance to take him to a hospital. When Chandan Kumar said that no sample was ever taken from him, the workers pointed out his phone and address details and said that they would pick him up. Ultimately, Chandan Kumar was lodged in a quarantine center in Forebesganj. The man is now worrying whether he would pick up the virus after staying with COVID patients.    Chandan Kumar may be an exception. The ground reality is that thousands of people in Bihar are awaiting COVID tests for the last several days. Bihar figures at the top of the list of states having the least number of COVID tests. Several people from Bihar rang me up to say that they were suffering from common cold, cough and fever, all suspected COVID symptoms. They are willing to get tested, but whenever they go to a test centre, they find a crowd of 300 to 400 people waiting. After keeping them waiting for the whole day, those in the queue are told that the day’s quota of 50 tests is over and they would have to come the next day.   Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar may have told his health department to conduct 20,000 COVID tests daily, but health experts have told me that Bihar does not have this kind of infrastructure to carry out such a large number of tests daily. Rapid antigen tests have started, but since these are being done on a limited scale, the situation is turning scary.    During the lockdown, while most of the states improved their testing capabilities, a number of ICUs and quarantine centres, Bihar lagged behind and did practically nothing.    There is a report from Kishanganj, where a seriously ill lady patient was taken to a government hospital, but the staff, instead of admitting her, said that a COVID test would be done first. For five hours, the woman lay suffering and ultimately died. None of the doctors or nurses attended to her. Angry relatives ransacked the hospital, broke the window panes of an ambulance and the authorities had to call in the police. Had the hospital staff taken timely action, the lady’s life could have been saved.   I agree that people should not ransack hospitals and stone ambulances. Nobody will support such an act, but the doctors, who give sage advice to these relatives, should understand why people turn violent. They must realize that they could have saved a patient’s life with timely medical intervention, but they did not do so.   There is another case of sheer negligence. In Patna’s Gardanibagh hospital, doctors were seen testing policemen with suspected COVID symptoms, inside a van. The reason: hospital attendants had not come to sanitize the hospital after the death of a COVID patient. Instead of waiting for the attendants to come, the doctors went to a van and started screening policemen.   Whether Rohtas, or Kishanganj, or Araria or Patna, after watching the videos, one can easily come to the conclusion that the healthcare system in Bihar is failing. If timely steps are not taken to revitalize the health system, the state of Bihar will suffer immensely due to this pandemic. Thousands of people can fall victim to the dreaded virus. In the last two days, I had shown in ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ show, the poor state of affairs in two top hospitals of Bihar, Patna Medical College and Nalanda Medical College. Bodies were lying inside the wards among patients. The only consolation now is that the state government took timely action to prevent such happenings.

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