The West Bengal government may be on a secret mission to clean up its act on its handling of the COVID-19 data and the coronavirus crisis.
Under pressure from a central team of observers, the opposition parties and a section of doctors in the state who accuse it of fudging data and the prospect of an assembly election a year from now, the state's ruling Trinamool Congress has been persuaded by advisors to get the government to clean up some nasty controversies around its handling of the crisis.
One controversy just refusing to go away is about its death count. Even on Monday, the Bengal government insisted at its daily briefing that the number of deaths from coronavirus in the state was 61 and not 133. One-hundred-and-thirty-three is the figure arrived at if 72 other COVID-19 linked fatalities are added to the acknowledged 61 deaths. These 72 people contracted the virus but the Bengal government's controversial death audit committee said the cause of death in their cases was co-morbidity or pre-existing health problems and not COVID-19. And the state seems to still be swearing by the death audit committee's finding.
But its public refusal to do the math and declare 133 as the official death count may just be bravado and all eyes are on the central government, ironically, to clear the air.
Data on all the deaths, including co-morbidities, is being shared with the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. If the Ministry adds 72 co-morbid deaths to 61 acknowledged COVID-19 deaths and updates the state's death toll of 133 on its website, the last word on the issue will have been said.
According to sources, the people who matter in the government and the ruling Trinamool party have been persuaded to see the light as controversies over its COVID-19 data and crisis management were beginning to hurt, politically.
"People can take big numbers, of COVID cases of COVID deaths. But if they ever suspect there is a discrepancy in the data, their faith is shattered," said sources, adding, "with the assembly election now just one year away, the Trinamool simply cannot afford it."
So advisors to the Trinamool have started from scratch and begun clearing the cobwebs.
The first move was to beat down the controversy over the state-appointed death audit committee, a panel that segregated COVID-19 deaths from co-morbidity deaths. If there was some logic for such a committee to exist, the opposition clamour against it, a pointed note by the central team questioning it and some dissatisfied doctors have in public perception, turned it into a state device to fudge coronavirus death statistics.
Over the last week, the committee was firmly sidelined, back benched and put into deep freeze. The chief secretary may have tried to save face. But he left no one in doubt that the death committee was dead.
Cleaning up the data was the next target.
The Monday press brief may have sent out mixed signals but the Health Department's data in an updated format is being viewed as a vast improvement and most transparent effort yet. In it, was the first acknowledgement of the controversial co-morbidities deaths.
The 72 co-morbidity deaths are mentioned twice in its three page data for the day. This is reportedly for the first time that the co-morbidity deaths have found mention in the Health Department's data on COVID-19.
Sources say the ball is being lobbed in the Union Ministry of Health's court. If the ministry decides that the co-morbidity deaths do not need to be added to Bengal's death count, then the state can say 'I told you so'. And if the ministry does decide to update the Bengal death toll to 133, then the state can say it is the centre's decision to do so.
In either case, the problem will hopefully be buried. And forgotten by the time the assembly elections come around a year from now, pandemic permitting.
"Hopefully, things will change rapidly now, once the death toll and death committee debates die down," said sources in the Trinamool Congress who are part of the fix-it effort. "Our next targets are increasing testing by leaps and bounds, improving treatment facilities, improving the ration distribution system and help get the migrants back," a senior leader added.