COVID-19: Calcutta HC to decide on Ganga Sagar Mela, Bengal municipal polls

Doctors, activists have urged judiciary, state government to defer ‘super spreader’ events such as Ganga Sagar Mela, municipal polls as third wave spreads

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Wednesday 05 January 2022

A crowd on a Kolkata street. Photo: Jayanta BasuPhoto: Jayanta Basu

The Calcutta High Court will be hearing two cases January 6, 2022, to decide whether the Ganga Sagar Mela and municipal elections in West Bengal can be held as the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreads across the state.

Petitioners have asked the court to stop both events as they could act as ‘super spreaders’ for the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).

The Ganga Sagar Mela is scheduled to begin from January 10.  Municipal elections are slated for four major cities in West Bengal — Bidhannagar, Siliguri, Chandannagar and Asansole — January 22.

Nearly 0.85 million voters are expected to give their mandate in the polls.

The High Court asked the state government January 5 as to how it planned to control the huge crowds expected at Ganga Sagar Mela on Sagar Island near Kolkata.

The court’s query was in response to a public interest petition filed by the non-profit West Bengal Doctors Forum, among others.

Another umbrella group, The Joint Platform of Doctors, West Bengal, wrote to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee January 4. It demanded an “immediate stop to the Ganga Sagar Mela”, stating that the event could turn out to be a super spreader.

“The health infrastructure in the state is already on verge of collapse with about 1,000 doctors, nurses and medical students being affected. Any possible super-spreading triggered by the Mela or the polls will further jeopardise the situation,” Hiralal Konar, one of the conveners of Joint Platform of Doctors, said.

Others have also demanded a deferment.

Biswajit Mukherjee, a retired chief law officer in the Government of West Bengal, wrote to the chief electoral officer in the West Bengal State Election Commission. He demanded that the election process be stopped.

He said:

The election commission is responsible according to the provision of the Constitution of India to arrange an election by which people can participate in proper manner. But the present situation is not at all congenial for citizens to participate in the election process.

“It is a difficult situation. We are waiting for a judicial directive,” a senior minister in the state cabinet told this reporter.

Sources said the state government was trying to shift the onus of taking tough decisions on controlling COVID-19 at the Ganga Sagar Mela on to the judiciary.

This had happened last when the Uttarakhand High Court had issued a range of directives to control the pandemic during the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.

Protocol inconsistency  

The West Bengal government’s health department dropped the monoclonal antibody therapy and the antiviral drug Molnupiravir from its COVID-19 treatment guidelines January 4.

The decision came just five days after both were included in the guidelines for COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate manifestation of symptoms.

“This change of guidelines within a span of a few days is only adding to the confusion in this difficult time,” senior COVID-19 specialist Ajoy Sarkar told this reporter January 5.

“Though abuse of the medicines, including monoclonal antibody, is not warranted, how can we summarily exclude it from the guidelines when its efficacy is scientifically established against delta variants. Is the government suggesting that the delta variant is no more a problem?” Sarkar said.

He also noted that if the central nod was important, why was such a clearance not taken before enlisting the therapy and the drug in the guidelines in the first place.

Arup Haldar, another COVID-19 specialist from a private hospital, agreed that the antibody cocktail therapy was being abused.

But he pointed out that such abrupt “all or none guidelines could have been avoided”.

“The guidelines could have spelt out the exact conditions in which such medicines can be used, rather than summarily removing them,” Haldar said.

“It’s a fact that the specific cocktail has been replaced by another one in the United States, which can act against both the delta and omicron variants. But here, we still do not have the new one,” Haldar said.     

Ajay Chakraborty, the state’s director of health services, defended the decision.

“The Government of India has not yet provided any protocol. We will wait for their new guidelines and withhold these new drugs till the national guidelines give a clear direction,” he said.

Chakrabarty, however, did not specify why the drugs were included in the first place without any national directive.

However, senior members of the state’s COVID-19 advisory committee pointed out two different reasons for the quick volte face of the state health department on the guidelines.

“The monoclonal antibody treatment is very costly; once you add it in the guidelines, you will have to use it in government facilities which give free treatment. It can turn out to be a real stress on the state exchequer,” a senior public health expert said.

Another member of the state’s expert committee pointed out that monoclonal antibody therapy, did not work against the omicron variant, which is now dominant in West Bengal particularly Kolkata.

Balram Bhargava, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, said January 5 that Molnupiravir had major safety concerns including mutagenicity, muscle, bone damage as well as contraception-related problems. Hence, it was not being included in the national guidelines for treatment.

West Bengal recorded 14,022 cases of COVID-19 January 5, with a positivity rate of more than 23.2 per cent. Kolkata clocked 6,170 cases out of these.

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