It is easy for children to die, in large numbers, in West Bengal. The state’s death zones are sometimes graced by the chief minister’s official concern, but the health minister is not usually seen in these places. One mystery illness, two weeks, around 40 dead and 200 ill children later, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has decided to visit Murshidabad. This is a special honour for the district, in the grips of what appears to be an undiagnosed viral epidemic, because the health minister, Mr Surya Kanta Mishra, who also happens to be a panchayat minister, has not dropped by since the children have started falling fatally ill. After the infant-deaths in the B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital, the SARS-related chaos in Calcutta, the Rajnis Patel tragedy and the rising polio graph in the state, the government’s criminally slow and mismanaged response in this case completes the picture of its health department’s traditional callousness and inefficiency.
In Murshidabad, already notorious for its dismal polio record, the situation illustrates all the familiar symptoms of Mr Mishra’s deadly misgovernance. The official figures are totally unreliable, with the government claiming that only 19 children have died so far. Children are languishing with the virus in the district hospitals and health-centres without any facilities for investigation and with practically no supplies of medicine. Again, the records show adequate supplies of medicines, but these are failing to reach the children who are ill, in spite of the block medical officers being informed repeatedly. The entire healthcare and local government infrastructure has totally failed to cope with this emergency — through a combination of political apathy, incompetence and indifference. Incredibly, the Congress has called a bandh in protest. And even more incredibly, Mr Anil Biswas, secretary of the state unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has criticized the Congress for having done so. Mr Bhattacharjee’s cluelessness and Mr Mishra’s invisibility add the finishing touches to a familiar, but nevertheless grim and shocking, healthcare scenario.