In a significant development, the West Bengal government has decided to virtually shelve the expert committee of doctors auditing deaths among patients testing positive for the novel coronavirus infection. The committee had triggered a great deal of controversy, with the state’s opposition parties alleging that the committee had been formed to suppress the number of deaths.
“The committee will continue doing academic and research work. Death declaration will no longer require its vetting. It will be declared as per protocols set by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR),” a top official of the state health department said on Friday.
New Delhi-based ICMR is the nodal body for Covid-19 treatment and procedures in India. The state government will henceforth declare Covid-19 deaths as per the death certificates, which will mention the immediate cause of death, antecedent cause of death and underlying cause of death.
The Covid-19 death audit committee, comprising doctors, was set up on April 3 by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who also holds the health portfolio. As of April 30, the committee assessed deaths of 105 patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 and attributed 33 deaths to the coronavirus infection and another 72 deaths to ‘severe co-morbid conditions’.
“The committee examined all the relevant documents, including bed-head tickets, treatment history, laboratory investigation reports, death certificates and other documents sent by the hospitals concerned to determine whether Covid-19 or pre-morbid conditions were the immediate cause of death,” according to a government document dated April 24, and signed by Bishwa Ranjan Satpati, who heads the expert committee.
This very role of differentiating between deaths of patients on the basis of pre-existing ailments had triggered a massive political controversy. Even an inter-ministerial central team, in its letter to the state on April 22, had asked the state to clarify the basis on which such a decision to differentiate between deaths had been taken.
However, the state government’s change of stance on the role of the committee seems to have happened after leaders of different doctors’ associations raised the issue during their meeting with the chief minister on April 28.
“We had told the chief minister that such differentiation was necessary for academic purposes only and the debates around identifying the immediate cause of death should remain confined within the boundaries of academic institutions. We are very grateful to the government for listening to the suggestion of the doctors. We expect the government would henceforth list deaths of all Covid-19 patients as Covid-19 deaths,” Rezaul Karim, a leader of West Bengal Doctors’ Forum who attended the meeting with the chief minister said.
Explaining the new role of the committee, chief secretary Rajiva Sinha said, “All death cases will no longer be referred to the committee. They will pick up random cases, fetch details from hospitals, and then give recommendations to the state.”
A top health official said the state was likely to consider only those deaths as Covid-19 deaths in which the death certificate would mention Covid-19 as the immediate cause of death.
Meanwhile, Bharatiya Janata Party state unit president Dilip Ghosh filed an online petition before the Calcutta high court on Thursday evening, seeking the court’s intervention in ensuring clarity on Covid-19 death figures.