If the growing sense of alarm and panic is unmistakable so is the fact that the state government’s response to the virus was infected with delayed action, bad planning and mismanagement.
The Indian Express tracked the origin and the spread of the virus, spoke to key characters in the crisis to piece together what went wrong in the state leading to the fastest spread of bird flu anywhere in India:
Early warning ignored
* It was in mid-December when chickens started dying in hordes in Margram under the Rampurhat sub-division in Birbhum district. Villagers reported these deaths to the Block Development Officer of Rampurhat II, Kakoli Mukherjee, and also to the Block Livestock Development Officer on December 15. Nothing was done. “Hundreds of birds were dying but block officials brushed aside our complaints,” said Muhammed Zakir Hussain, Sabhadhipati of Margram village panchayat.
* One Mursheda Bibi of Mahipara, who lost 28 chickens, went to Animal Resources Development (ARD) officials on December 28. This time, the BDO called up District Magistrate, Birbhum. But that was all. It was only on January 12 — almost 15 days later — that officials visited her house to collect samples form the poultry stocks and sent these to Bhopal. When asked about the delay, T K Some, DM, Birbhum said: “I received the call from the BDO. But chickens die in various diseases, how do I know it’s bird flu?”
Sitting on Bhopal Report
* On Jan 14, Birbhum DM wrote to Sub-Divisional Officer, Rampurhat, Prasanna Kumar Mondol, saying that preliminary tests confirmed the H5N1 virus. The DM “advised” necessary precautions but nothing was done at the ground level. Village panchayat leaders said that none was told about the implications of the virus.
* Neither any medical team nor any ARD team was in the village until January 16.
* It was only on January 16 afternoon that the district health administration, ARD officials held a meeting and announced culling operations covering an area within 5-km radius of Mahipara. “On January 15 evening, the Centre declared Bird Flu in Margram. I had no directions what to do, I am not a bird flu expert,” said P K Mondol, the SDO.
* Result: dead birds began to pile up and many households were feasting on the ones that were ill.
Right hand didn’t know left
* While ARD set up culling teams on their own, the state Health Department claimed to be concentrating on door-to-door survey of human influenza.
* Nearly 300 ARD staffers were stranded after just a one-day training. These comprised mostly accountants and Group D staff who had little knowledge about the disease or its containment.
* The Health Department, meanwhile, roped in local boys from different villages and employed them as “health surveyors” to carry out house-to-house survey and test for avian flu. A majority of them were school dropouts with no prior medical training or experience. They had no testing equipment, not even a thermometer.
* They were told to cover 100 houses a day and fill up forms for each household and specify if anyone had temperature above 38 degrees Celsius. These surveyors, who were promised Rs 50 and refreshments, say they have not been paid and many withdrew.
* The state government failed to put up a proper “perimeter control,” despite initiating culling operations within a 5-km radius from the epicentre of the outbreak at Margram. Both people and birds were allowed to travel out from Margram to nearby districts.
CPM machinery stood in the way
* In many villages, people led by ruling party leaders resisted culling operations. Margram Panchayat, for instance, is under the control of the Congress. The CPM backed popular sentiment of the villagers hoping to cash in during the ensuing panchayat polls in May-June. Sanjiv Barman, the zonal committee secretary of Rampurhat Block II said: “If we do not come to their support at this critical juncture they will not support us in the ballot box. We are therefore raising the issue of inadequate compensation.” Result: many villagers refused to give up the birds for culling.
* Leaders complained of lack of an awareness campaign before culling operations began. Often, culling teams went to villages at odd hours without any prior information and villagers were not prepared to hand over the birds. “No one told us about the disease and one morning, they came and demanded my poultry. The birds were out. I asked them to come another day. I kept waiting with my poultry but no one turned up,” said Sheikh Amzad of Buropithtola in Margram.
* In some places like Nalhati, culling teams were beaten up. A day after culling operations began, local CPM members took out rallies in a number of villages in Margram, Nalhati and Mayureshwar areas, demanding better compensation for affected farmers.
* In Parulia village, when the team reached on January 16, about 100 people, led by Ananda Bagdi, the local CPM Panchayat Pradhan, resisted the culling. They had two demands: culling teams had to take their permission before entering the village and an upward revision of the compensation. The culling teams backed off.
* There was no effort on the part of CPM leaders to use their fabled party network to spread awareness about the dangers of the virus and co-operate with authorities.
* CPM state secretary Biman Bose issued an alert yesterday — a week after the outbreak.
* As the bird flu virus spread, the Ministers were distracted by the CPM party congress in Kolkata. Both the ARD and the Health Ministries are held by the CPM. It was only on January 20, five days after official announcement of the outbreak, that Anisur Rehman, state ARD minister, visited Birbhum and Margram.
* Surya Kant Mishra, state health minister, visited Bolpur in Birbhum on January 22. No other minister visited Ground Zero.
When contacted, ARD Minister Rehman said: “It’s for the first time that the state had been experiencing the deadly virus. We are doing our best to contain the virus.” Said Health Minister Surya Kanta Mishra: “Our men are doing their best. It is everyone’s duty to coordinate such operations. There has been no human infection, as far as I am concerned it is not spreading. It’s the media that is spreading the panic. There has been no human infection.”