- Centre put an end to the controversy over Bengal's COVID-19 numbers
- Bengal claimed 61 patients died of virus, 72 other had co-morbidities
- Health Ministry added both and listed 133 deaths in Bengal
The centre has put an end to a controversy over West Bengal's coronavirus numbers. Even last evening, Bengal claimed 61 patients had died of the virus in the state and 72 other deaths linked to COVID-19 were of patients who had co-morbidities or existing health problems.
But the Union Health Ministry refused to accept the distinction. It added the two figures -- 61 and 72 -- and listed 133 COVID-19 deaths in Bengal on its website this morning.
The update is on the basis of a revamped data sheet uploaded by the Bengal health department last evening. For the first time, it also had a list of deaths due to co-morbidities.
This morning, Bengal home secretary Alapan Bandopadhyay, following the usual format, said seven virus patients had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the number of deaths to 68.
Had he used central data, that updated figure would have been 140.
On the centre listing 133 deaths in Bengal, Mr Bandopadhyay said, "I don't have the centre and state data with me so I can't say anything. But we are trying our best to ensure truthful convergence. The chief secretary explained yesterday that all figures have been extremely scientifically converged in Bengal."
The confusion deepened yesterday when two sets of Bengal government data came into circulation.
The set shared by the state's ruling Trinamool in New Delhi had 133 deaths with no mention of the co-morbidity deaths. But the state's health department site said there were 61 deaths and, in tiny letters marked with an asterisk, referred to 72 co-morbidity deaths.
According to sources, poll strategist Prashant Kishor has a role in the state government's attempts to unravel the data mess, at the core of which is the controversial "death audit committee" set up to examine and declare the cause of death. Critics allege the committee's brief was to fudge death data.
To start with, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee completely distanced herself from the committee, saying she had no idea about it or its members.
Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha first disclosed co-morbidity data on April 24, when he said the death audit committee had studied 57 deaths and 18 of them were because of coronavirus. In the remaining 39, the cause of death was comorbidities or pre-existing health problems and COVID-19 "was incidental".
This disclosure came hours after the IMCT or Central team in Kolkata questioned the death audit committee's validity in a letter to the Chief Minister.
Six days later, after Mamata Banerjee disowned it, the chief secretary signaled the virtual death of the audit committee. "It will continue," he said, but added it would not examine every coronavirus death, only random samples.
Not just the central team and opposition parties, even a section of doctors had questioned the death audit committee. They felt doctors were fully capable of deciding the cause of death of COVID-19 positive patients and there was no need for a different committee to examine it.
Sources said anyone who says the death toll in Bengal is 133 and not 61 will not be challenged anymore.
Mr Kishor's intervention is key as Mamata Banerjee faces assembly elections now exactly one year away, the pandemic permitting. The Chief Minister, hemmed in by the centre's allegations of mishandling the virus crisis, specially sought him out for damage control.