Has fighting COVID-19 with a six-city flight ban helped West Bengal?

A closer look at the state government's policy to prohibit entry of COVID-19 cases from outside Bengal highlights several loopholes.
A worker wearing a PPE kit pushes a cart at deserted NSCBI Airport during the biweekly lockdown. (Photo | PTI)
A worker wearing a PPE kit pushes a cart at deserted NSCBI Airport during the biweekly lockdown. (Photo | PTI)

It was on July 4 that Mamata Banerjee called for a flight ban from six cities with a high number of COVID-19 cases. 

The embargo on the arrival of flights from Chennai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Pune, Nagpur and Mumbai, which was initially imposed for a period of 14 days from July 6, has now gone on to be extended till August 31. West Bengal has also barred all operations at the Kolkata airport on the days of bi-weekly total lockdown. 

But, despite the selective flight ban, there has been no tangible reduction in the state's COVID-19 positivity rate, suggests data.

On July 5, when Mamata Banerjee announced the flight embargo, the state had recorded 22126 cases. The state's coronavirus tally went up to 65258 on July 30. As of August 20, the state has a total 1,29,119 COVID-19 cases. 

The state also has a high positivity rate of 8.9 per cent as opposed to the country's average rate of 6.8 per cent.

A closer look at the state government's policy to prohibit entry of COVID-19 cases from outside Bengal highlights several loopholes.

The government cherry-picked six cities that had the maximum number of coronavirus cases as of July 5, but, later while announcing the extensions, did not consider the inclusion of cities with rising numbers. 

Telangana, for instance, has a seven-day average positivity rate of 19 per cent, the highest in the country. Karnataka too has a high positivity rate of 16 per cent. Then there is Andhra Pradesh, which has again witnessed a sudden spike in cases, taking the state's COVID-19 positivity rate to 9.29 per cent. But flights from cities in these states remain allowed to bring in passengers to Kolkata.

And while Mamata put a halt on flight operations from Delhi, which has an average positivity rate of 16 per cent, special trains from the city to Kolkata continue to ply. 

Notably, the Railways Ministry had issued an advisory asking persons with comorbidities, pregnant women, children below 10 years and persons above 65 years of age to avoid travel by trains. With flights from Delhi banned, do people in these high-risk categories even have an option?

The selective flight embargo has understandably irked several Bengalis stranded in these six cities, away from their families. 

"I need to go home to my parents. They are both old and the situation in Kolkata is not improving. In these trying times, the Chief Minister should have shown compassion, but instead, she declared a flight ban. I can't take a train back home as it's too risky. How long should one wait," said Srinjini Ghosh, a young professional based in Delhi.

Criticising the ban, netizens have also taken to Twitter to share their disappointment with the state government.

Earlier this month, two travel agents' organisations had written to the chief secretary urging the Bengal government to reconsider the decision to suspend passenger flights to Kolkata while citing the body blow it has inflicted on them.

Oddly enough despite the state holding firm on the ban on flights from these cities in the face of all this, there have been major failures. 

In July, a 34-year-old man flew from Delhi to Kolkata via Guwahati with a COVID positive report in his pocket. 

The New Indian Express, in fact, came across more than one instance of people stuck in these six cities hopping airports to reach Kolkata.

A Delhi-based young man, who had to recently rush back to Kolkata for a family emergency, decided to try his luck by landing up in Lucknow and taking a flight from there to Kolkata. 

"I was allowed to exit the airport without any self-isolation stamp. In fact, they didn't even check my temperature or any app. I was amazed at the level of callousness that the authorities showed. Weirdly, they asked us to submit the face shield that we had been wearing throughout the journey," he said.

Allegations have also been levelled against the authorities for letting passengers walk scotfree without home quarantine stamps.

But the bigger question is about how viable this ban is and for how long can such a selective containment policy continue even when the list of top six cities in terms of the rate of infections is changing?

Dr Oommen John, secretary, Asia Pacific Association for Medical Informatics said, "We forget to consider that trains are running and people are using other means to travel. Ad hoc measures such as selective flight ban are unlikely to help.  Any public health measure needs to be informed by evidence. 
The strategies should be measured and reviewed regularly and based on the results new approaches should be adapted".

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The New Indian Express