NEWS
22/05/2020 2:23 PM IST | Updated 22/05/2020 2:29 PM IST

How Cyclone Amphan Has Spelt Doom For West Bengal's Covid-19 Efforts

Migrant workers who managed to reach home are now homeless, there is apprehension of water borne diseases and scare of a rise in Covid cases because social distancing is now a luxury.

DIBYANGSHU SARKAR via Getty Images
Children lay out their wet textbooks to dry following the landfall of cyclone Amphan in Khejuri area of Midnapore, West Bengal, on May 21, 2020

West Bengal reported 94 new Covid-19 positive patients and six deaths even as efforts to bring the pandemic under control was foiled by cyclone Amphan

The number of active cases in the state was at 1,745, while the death toll projected by the state government was 187, without counting the 72 deaths that the government said was because of morbidities. 

Social distancing norms and the focus on the pandemic took a back seat as the West Bengal government turned its attention towards relief efforts in the state left in a state of devastation with damages that will likely go up to hundreds of crores. 

The districts of East Midnapore, Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas, along with Kolkata, are the worst hit by the cyclone.

This is already putting efforts to contain Covid-19 in distress with industries being unable to resume operations after relaxation, migrants’ journeys home being hampered and a danger of further spread of the disease because social distancing norms are difficult to follow given the number of people who have been put in shelter homes. 

Here are some of the factors that could hamper Bengal’s Covid-19 efforts in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan. 

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Doctors apprehensive 

PTI spoke to multiple doctors how have been on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19 in West Bengal who have expressed worry about the situation of the pandemic in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan. 

While lakhs of people have been rendered homeless because of the cyclone and are now several shelter homes and temporary relief camps, where “social distancing” is 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, told PTI.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee had said on Thursday evening that at least five lakh people had been moved to shelter homes. 

PTI quoted a doctor of a private hospital that has been turned into a Covid-19 centre in West Bengal as saying, “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.”

Disaster response force also at risk

The first step at the moment for the West Bengal government was to carry out relief efforts — clear out the hundreds of trees that were uprooted, set up electricity networks that were disrupted and rebuilding the state. 

This means that people will have to be on the streets working to bring the state back on its feet. 

PTI reported that the government 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.

“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.

But this might now be enough, when people have to step out even as India is under lockdown. 

Water borne diseases

The spread of waterborne diseases after floods also pose danger. 

PTI reported that 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.

Reopening of industries affected 

At a time when the economy of the country has taken a beating because of the lockdown, reopening of industries in Bengal will also be affected because of the cyclone. 

Industries located in Haldia, an industrial town in East Midnapur, and in Birlapur have incurred huge losses because of the cyclone. 

Damages to factories, a massive power outage, and phone connectivity issues mean it will take a long time for industries to limp back to normalcy. 

Sanjay Budhia, MD of Patton Group, told The Telegraph, “There was heavy damage to our unit in Falta as well as our other units in the state. It took my factory manager six hours to reach Falta. For export business time is essence.”

No relief for migrant workers

Migrant workers from other states who had managed to reach their homes in Bengal are now out of luck again. 

Jamal Mondal, a 45-year-old migrant labourer who returned from Bengaluru to Gosaba in South 24 Parganas just on Monday, was now put up in a shelter home. 

He told PTI, “On Monday, when I reached home, I thought my sufferings were over. But I was wrong. The lockdown took away my job and the cyclone took away everything I was left with. I do not know what would I do next, where would I stay and how would I feed my family.”

The same horrifying story played out for several others like Jamal. Jamir Ali, a 35-year-old worker had moved to Bengaluru after the devastating cyclone Aila in 2009. 

“After Aila, I had decided to go to Bengaluru in search of work. I worked there as a mason for 10 years, but due to the lockdown, lost my job and after an arduous journey of 15 days by foot, truck and bus, managed to reach home on Tuesday. I was hopeful that everything would be fine, but the worse was waiting to happen,” he said.

Ali’s house has been destroyed and since Wednesday night, there is no trace of his younger brother, who had gone out to tie down their boat near the embankment, the PTI report said. 

“My brother left the house at around 5 pm, saying he would be back within half-an-hour after tying down our fishing dinghy to one of the pillars on the embankment. The embankment is completely destroyed and there is no trace of him,” Ali said.

Embankments in the Sundarban delta ― a UNESCO world heritage site ― were breached as the surge whipped up by the cyclone inundated several kilometres of the islands. For the residents of the area, the fight for survival with nature and wildlife is a routine affair.

The region also sends a large number of labourers to work in various parts of the country.

“Earlier, most of us used to work here. But after the 2009 cyclone, we lost much of our habitat due to the rising sea levels and had to move to other states. But this cyclone took away our homes. All us have to start from scratch as we are not left with even a single penny,” said Joydeb Mondal while standing in a queue for food outside a relief camp.

(With inputs from PTI)