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COVID-19 cases likely to rise in Bengal as social-distancing norms go up in smoke: Doctors

PTI May 23, 2020

With Cyclone Amphan wreaking havoc in West Bengal, including Kolkata, senior medical practitioners at the frontline in the war against COVID-19 are apprehensive that the number of cases would rise substantially in the days ahead as the social-distancing norms would go up in smoke and there would be curbs on the spending to tackle the pandemic.

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At least 72 people were killed and lakhs rendered homeless as the extremely severe cyclonic storm cut a path of destruction through half-a-dozen districts of Bengal including the state capital, blowing away shanties and uprooting thousands of trees, besides swamping the low-lying areas.

The districts of East Midnapore, Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas, along with Kolkata, are the worst hit by the cyclone. With lakhs of people rendered homeless in the districts of East Midnapore, Howrah and North 24 Parganas, the state administration has put them up at several shelter homes and temporary relief camps, where the words "social distancing" sound like a luxury. "The way the number of cases is going up in the state, the cyclone will bring in catastrophe. At most of these shelter homes and camps, there is no scope for maintaining any form of social distancing. You can imagine the level of infection it will cause," said a senior doctor of a government hospital, who did not wish to be named.

East Midnapore, Howrah and North 24 Parganas were identified as COVID-19 hotspot districts earlier. A senior state health department official said West Bengal is apprehending a spike in the number of coronavirus cases in the days to come. The number of confirmed cases in Bengal stood at 3,103, with 252 deaths, including 72 due to comorbidities, till May 20 evening.

The state government has so far evacuated over five lakh people to safer places due to the cyclone. "We feel that the government spending on COVID response will come down in the days to come as funds will be needed for restoration. We had just crossed the one-lakh testing benchmark and we were moving in the right direction after a lot of mistakes. I feel this cyclone will derail everything," another doctor of a private COVID-19 hospital said.

The government has distributed more than two lakh face masks among the evacuees and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits were handed out to the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) personnel who have been deployed in the vulnerable areas, a senior official said. "We had distributed masks, but right now, the priority is to save lives rather than social-distancing norms or infection. Most of the cyclone centres are filled up with the migrant labourers who have returned from other states and are undergoing quarantine. There is a lack of pucca houses where we can keep the evacuees," a senior official said.

The doctors feel that with several parts of the state being waterlogged, cases of water-borne diseases are also likely to go up in the days to come, which will put additional pressure on the state's health infrastructure, which is already stretched due to the COVID situation. "The increase in the number of water-borne diseases would put additional pressure on the state's health sector," internal medicine specialist Rahul Jain said.

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