West Bengal (India) Report until June

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Md. Azmeer Rahman Sorder https://www.linkedin.com/in/azmeer-rahman/ (University of Dhaka)

West Bengal is one of 29 states in India and is neighbored by the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Sikkim, and Assam. It is located in the east of India and also shares international borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal, where the Bay of Bengal encompasses the state from the south.1 West Bengal has a functioning state government operating under the federal government system of India.2 The present state government control is in the hand of the All India Trinamool Congress, headed by Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee.3 West Bengal’s first Coronavirus (COVID-19) patient was confirmed on March 17th, with the first COVID-19 death recorded on March 23rd.4 5

West Bengal’s policies to contain COVID-19 date back to early March, where mass awareness campaigns started in schools on March 4th.6 Within the first half of March, the state government had rushed to prepare hospitals and other medical installments to respond to the pandemic.7 Restrictions on mass gathering started in the state with the restriction imposed on all sporting events from March 13th until 31st.8 West Bengal’s major pandemic preparation started on March 16th when it invoked the century-old Epidemic Diseases Act 1897.9 Also on March 16th, West Bengal closed movie theaters until March 31st, and also closed tourist spots for 15 days.10 11

On March 14th, the authorities announced that all educational institutions in the state would remain shut from March 15th to 31st.12 However, on March 16th, the state government very quickly extended the closure of educational institutions until April 15th.13 Subsequently, the school closure was announced to extend until June 10th, then June 30th and July 31st by the end of June.14 15 16 On April 2nd, the West Bengal government announced that students from Grade 1 to 8 would progress to the next grade without having to pass the respective exam.17

On March 22nd, West Bengal imposed its first set of lockdown from March 23rd to 27th.18 The state on March 21st suspended all inbound and outbound interstate bus services from midnight on March 21st until 31st.19 The state authority also banned movement of all non-essential cargo from March 22nd to 31st.20 As part of statewide restrictions, on March 21st, it was announced that all social gatherings would be banned from March 22nd until 31st.21 Shortly after, the state announced on March 24th that it would extended its lockdown until March 31st.22 This state lockdown was extended until April 30th, then to May 31st, then to June 15th and then until June 30th.23 24 25 26 On June 24th, the lockdown was extended to July 31st.27 While lockdown in non-containment zones progressed with state-mandated relaxations,28 lockdown in containment zones were strictly maintained.29 Alongside lockdowns and relaxations, West Bengal decided to resume public transportation from May 27th with capacity restrictions.30 Television and film shootings were allowed from May 21st.31 Hawker shops and parlors were allowed to open from May 27th and interstate buses were allowed from May 21st.32 All public and private offices were also allowed to open from June 8th.33

Kolkata Municipality was quick to launch their own COVID-19 policies. The Municipality launched call center for COVID-19 awareness on March 16th, launched a separate control room and formed a dedicated medical response team on March 18th.34 35 36 The other municipalities and city bodies, including the Kolkata Municipality, started sanitations drives from April.37 38 39 Also on May 13th, the Kolkata Municipality launched their own quarantine centers.40 Other public service bodies like Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation stopped their services from March 23rd until 31st.41 As the pandemic first hit the state, the West Bengal government set up temporary quarantine centers in stadiums.42

Faced with the challenges of rumors and fake news, on March 18th, the West Bengal government announced strict actions against spreading rumors about COVID-19.43 The Chief Minister reiterated a stern warning against posting fake videos about COVID-19 on March 27th.44 From the beginning of April, the West Bengal Police started singing versions of popular Bengali songs to raise awareness and motivate people.45 The West Bengal Police also played the Chief Minister’s “Awareness Song” about COVID-19 on the birth anniversary of famous Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, on May 8th.46 On April 13th, the authorities commenced using drones to detect violations of social distancing rules in Kolkata’s New Town.47 From April 12th, the Kolkata Police also resorted to drones to monitor the people and prevent mass gatherings.48

West Bengal launched a contact-tracing app named “Sandhane” on April 9th.49 On April 12th, the authorities announced mandatory mask-wearing in the state,50 which was also strictly applied to government officers and employees who started working in office from June 8th.51 Furthermore, the authorities issued a mandatory mask regulation for the patients and relatives visiting hospitals on April 14th.52 The state government on July 4th stated that the violation of mask mandate would result into penal actions.53 On April 13th, West Bengal decided to conduct a door-to-door survey of suspected COVID-19 patients in the high risk spots.54 Again on April 18th, West Bengal government announced “pool testing” to detect asymptomatic carriers.55 From April 20th, the state started conducting rapid testing with the help of its 14 medical colleges.56 Despite these actions, the testing number in the state remains low compared to other states.57 Experts pointed out social stigma as one of contributing factor of low testing, which has resulted in higher death rates in the state.58 However after criticism of the government soared, West Bengal ramped up the testing number.59 Adding to mismanagement, despite identifying seven COVID-19 hotspots in the state by April 7th, the authorities took an unreasonably long time to finalize and announce containment zones in these hotspots.60 61

West Bengal’s rapid testing policy in April took a hit within seven days when the Indian Council of Medical Research suggested halting the use of Chinese rapid test kits on April 27th.62 On May 16th, West Bengal along with Council of Industrial and Scientific Research launched a clinical trial of convalescent plasma therapy which was finally approved from medical use on May 28th.63 64 In June, Kolkata Municipality introduced two major COVID-19 testing policies on June 11th and 16th respectively. The first policy involved conducting random COVID-19 testing in high rises and residential areas to control the infection.65 The second one was to start IgG antibody tests to detect community transmission in the worst-hit areas.66 Also on June 11th, Kolkata Municipality Corporation and the Kolkata police launched a joint effort to identify vulnerable senior citizens in residential areas.67

Early into the pandemic on March 20th, West Bengal announced food rations for the state’s 75 million people over six months in response to the economic realities of the situation.68 On March 19th, the authorities announced insurance of five hundred thousand rupees for each of the 1 million state health workers.69 The insurance amount was doubled on March 30th.70 On June 17th, West Bengal decided to honor medical workers through the “COVID warrior” designation and awarding COVID warriors with a 10 percent incentive.71 Also on June 17th, West Bengal government launched 104 safe houses for COVID-19 positive patients with mild symptoms to ease the pressure on hospitals.72 The Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata, which is the oldest one in India, decided to dedicate the whole facility to COVID-19 treatment from March 28th.73 West Bengal also launched COVID warrior clubs for COVID-19 survivors in all the districts, which involved the government providing shelter and basic necessities to these socially stigmatized survivors.74

One of West Bengal’s first restrictions on government services was to limit the number of hours of the work duty period. On March 19th, West Bengal government curtailed the duty period by one hour.75 On the following day, March 20th, the state government initiated a partial work-from-home policy until March 31st for the state employees, regulating that 50 percent of employees need to work remotely.76 On March 23rd after the state lockdown started, banking hours were shortened between 10am to 2pm.77 From March 19th, the Kolkata High Court decided to defer “Lok Adalat”, an alternative court mechanism for dispute, pending cases and pre-settlement cases, indefinitely.78 On March 24th, all courts in West Bengal closed from March 25th to April 9th.79 This court closure was extended to April 30th, then to May 15th, then to May 31st and finally until June 8th.80 81 82 83 On June 5th, the Kolkata High Court decided to resume the lower courts’ physical functions from June 8th, and its own physical function from June 11th.84 85

By the first week of April, the West Bengal government had created a number of COVID-19 taskforces. A ‘Global Advisory Board for COVID Response Policy in West Bengal’, headed by 2019 Nobel laureate Dr Abhijit Banerjee, was declared on April 6th to develop a plan for the post COVID-19 and lockdown situation.86 On April 8th, the state announced three taskforces for restrictions and relaxations, enforcement as well as the economy respectively.87 The state-mandated restrictions on public movements from 7pm to 7am were announced on May 18th.88 Within 20 days, these restrictions were eased and were imposed from 9pm to 5am on June 4th.89 The new set of restrictions was again eased on June 26th. The latest restrictions were set from 10pm to 5am and were to remain in place until July 31st.90

One of controversial policies taken by West Bengal was to allow sweet shops to open for four hours a day from March 30th, and for eight hours a day from April 16th.91 92 By the end of June, West Bengal also announced their plan to market immunity-boosting sandesh, a kind of Bengali sweet. However, no further decision or actions to bring the product into market have been undertaken since.93 West Bengal imposed fee restrictions on COVID-19 in private hospitals on June 26th, nearly three month after the state went into total lockdown.94 One of the biggest controversies surrounding pandemic management was that the West Bengal government hid data and showed falsified death figures. The allegations were later confirmed on May when the state government added 72 deaths to the total death tally, causing West Bengal to have the worst COVID-19 mortality rate of any state in India.95 From April, the ruling government came repeatedly under fire for allegations of data mismanagement and data hiding from the public eye.96

During the pandemic, West Bengal’s internal politics and Indian national politics played key parts in the decision-making of the state government.97 The upcoming 2021 election in the state looms large over both the ruling and opposition party.98 The policies that the state government has taken involved a mixture of restrictions and relaxations. Furthermore, the projected policies of the state have been enforced in accordance with the coordinated policies of the central Indian government’s unlock plan.99 100

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020. https://www.britannica.com/place/West-Bengal

  2. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020. https://www.britannica.com/place/West-Bengal/Economy#ref281404

  3. Bhattacharya, Snigdhendu. July 21st, 2020. The Wire India. https://thewire.in/politics/mamata-banerjee-trinamool-congress-martyrs-day-2021-polls-speech-bjp

  4. The Economic Times. March 18th, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/west-bengal-reports-first-positive-case-of-coronavirus/articleshow/74680463.cms

  5. Singh, Shiv Sahay. March 23rd, 2020. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-west-bengal-records-first-covid-19-death/article31143240.ece

  6. The Print. March 4th, 2020. https://theprint.in/india/west-bengal-govt-asks-schools-to-sensitise-students-on-reducing-risk-of-coronavirus/375828/

  7. Government of West Bengal. March 12th, 2020. https://www.wbhealth.gov.in/uploaded_files/corona/Bulletin_West_Bengal_12.03_.2020_.pdf

  8. Deccan Herald. March 14th, 2020. https://www.deccanherald.com/national/east-and-northeast/all-sports-events-in-bengal-postponed-till-march-30-west-bengal-cm-mamata-813663.html

  9. The First Post. March 17th, 2020. https://www.firstpost.com/india/coronavirus-outbreak-mamata-banerjee-invokes-epidemic-diseases-act-in-west-bengal-asks-people-to-not-hide-covid-19-symptoms-8159571.html

  10. Dainik Statesman. March 17th, 2020. https://epaper.thestatesman.com/2597258/Dainik-Statesman/17TH-MARCH-2020#page/1/2

  11. Dainik Statesman. March 17th, 2020. https://epaper.thestatesman.com/2597258/Dainik-Statesman/17TH-MARCH-2020#issue/3/1

  12. Singh, Shiv Sahay. March 14th, 2020. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/coronavirus-west-bengal-government-closes-all-educational-institutions-till-march-31/article31068116.ece

  13. The New Indian Express. March 16th, 2020. https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/mar/16/bengal-shuts-down-schools-till-april-15-earmarks-rs-200-crore-to-combat-covid-19-2117438.html

  14. India Today. April 11th, 2020. https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/west-bengal-schools-and-colleges-closed-till-june-10-lockdown-extended-1665919-2020-04-11

  15. The Times of India. May 27th, 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/schools-in-west-bengal-to-remain-closed-till-june-30/articleshow/76038886.cms

  16. India TV News. June 23rd, 2020. https://www.indiatvnews.com/education/news-west-bengal-schools-colleges-remain-closed-till-july-31-kolkata-covid-cases-628572

  17. The Indian Express. April 2nd, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/education/coronavirus-west-bengal-to-promote-students-of-classes-1-to-8-without-exams-6343946/

  18. The Hindustan Times. March 22nd, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/kolkata/bengal-announces-complete-lockdown-from-monday-evening-till-march-27/story-cmPrLLAjzk72e6Y4NFNjEM.html

  19. Government of West Bengal. March 21st, 2020. https://wb.gov.in/upload/MCLNEWS-200323112335837.pdf

  20. Government of West Bengal. March 22nd, 2020. https://wb.gov.in/upload/MCLNEWS-200323112038277.pdf

  21. Government of West Bengal. March 21st, 2020. https://wb.gov.in/upload/MCLNEWS-200323113538444.pdf

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  25. The Indian Express. May 31st, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/lockdown-till-june-15-in-west-bengal-malls-restaurants-to-reopen-june-8-6435167/

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  29. Singh, Shiv Sahay. June 9th, 2020. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/lockdown-in-containment-zones-to-continue-till-june-30-in-west-bengal/article31782873.ece

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  32. Mishra, Anupam. May 18th, 2020. India TV News. https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india/west-bengal-hawkers-market-may-27-inter-district-buses-may-21-618354

  33. Singh, Shiv Sahay. May 30th, 2020. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/coronavirus-lockdown-govt-private-offices-in-bengal-to-open-from-june-8-says-mamata/article31706536.ece

  34. The Kolkata Municipality Corporation. March 18th, 2020. https://www.kmcgov.in/KMCPortal/downloads/MC_Circular188_21_03_2020.pdf

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  37. Siliguri Times. May 12th, 2020. https://siliguritimes.com/hill-cart-road-vyavasayi-samiti-and-smc-jointly-sanitized-the-shops-and-footpaths-amid-pandemic/

  38. The New Indian Express. April 12th, 2020. https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/apr/12/covid--19-kolkata-municipal-corporation-conducts-disinfection-drive-2129147.html

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  43. The Telegraph Online. March 18th, 2020. https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/coronavirus-in-west-bengal-kolkata-police-warns-rumour-mongers-of-stern-action/cid/1755432

  44. Banerjee, Mamata. March 27th, 2020. Business Standard. https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/mamata-warns-of-action-against-those-posting-fake-news-on-coronavirus-120032701694_1.html

  45. Nandini, Navashree. April 3rd, 2020. Republic World. https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/kolkata-police-sings-popular-bengali-song-giving-covid-awareness-twist.html

  46. Arnimesh, Shanker and Das, Madhuparna. May 8th, 2020. The Print. https://theprint.in/politics/police-issue-order-to-play-mamatas-covid-song-on-tagore-birthday-bjp-calls-it-insulting/417231/

  47. Chakraborty, Ajanta. April 19th, 2020. The Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/authorities-use-drones-to-disperse-crowd-at-new-town-markets-in-kolkata/articleshow/75230277.cms

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