August 14, 2020
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SARS: A tale of two cities

'We Have Nothing Against Asitabha-da, But...

Shunned by his family and neighbours, Kolkata's first victim of the virus suffers for no fault of his

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'We Have Nothing Against Asitabha-da, But...

From North 24 Parganas to South Kolkata, the scare of SARS holds sway. All because so far one concrete case has been detected, while reports are yet to come in on the status of other SARS-positive suspects.

SARS consciousness again is highly area-selective. For instance, one meets people in masks outside the Apollo Medical Research Institute (AMRI) in south Kolkata, creating a surrealist ambience. One or two persons can be seen wearing masks, mostly non-surgical, near the city center. But on the whole the masks have not really caught on yet.

Masks are very much the defining characteristic of Debigarh area in Madhyamgram, about 21 kms north-east of Kolkata. The area’s recent claim to 'fame' is the only known SARS patient, Asitabha Purakayastha. A textile engineer by profession, he had gone on a long trip to several East Asian countries, including China, little knowing how it would end.Prurakayastha returned from Hong Kong via Mumbai and Delhi, before touching down in Kolkata and was checked at each place, on April 19. However, his fever started from the 20th at his residence, accompanied by severe chest pain.

By now, his family and neighbours knew enough about SARS to send him packing to the nearest nursing home, which admitted him and refused treatment on the ground that it did not know how treat the disease. His next stop was government’s Infectious Diseases Hospital where there was no infrastructure to deal with a SARS patient.Finally, he was taken to the AMRI where he got his first treatment. On April 28, AMRI authorities declared him sufficiently cured to go home. But the people of Debigarh were in no mood to welcome him home. Even his family members seemed to go along with the prevailing opinion, for reasons still unknown.

Outlook spoke to members of the Netaji Sangha, a local organisation which spearheaded the campaign to prevent Purakayastha's return, "until he is fully fit" as its members Ashok Chakravarty and Shyamal Mitra put it. To put it mildly, they were not convinced by the verdict of the AMRI authorities and launched a scathing attack on the state government’s poor response to a medical emergency."How could the AMRI authorities pronounce Purakayastha sufficiently fit when he was still running high temperature? Again, if he is fully fit, free of the mysterious virus, then why do the AMRI doctors insist that even after his return he will have to be put in isolation for sometime? Obviously because he is not yet cured!

"Our stand is simple. We have nothing against Asitabha-da, but let his blood samples be checked again at Pune or elsewhere, let other experts make a fresh analysis into his condition and pronounce him fully fit, let someone capable take responsibility, not the incompetent state authorities who are trying to minimize the gravity of the situation and still claiming that everyone is safe. Yet they do not really have a clue to even diagnosing, let alone treating, the disease!" says former municipal councilor of the area Mihir Paul, a supporter of Netaji Sangha’s stand.The other aspect of the situation that has peeved the people Madhyamgram is the lack of facilities. Not only local nursing homes, but even major government hospitals like the SSKM, the IDH and the celebrated School of Tropical Medicine lacked elementary equipment!

Outlook also spoke to Asitabha's sister, Sobhana Dutta Choudhury, who with other family members of her brother visited him daily at the AMRI hospital. There is a demand to have them checked every day, in the interest of the locality. Shobhna too, feels would not be wise to move her brother from AMRI now, because he also suffers from a heart ailment.

"I’m sure the movements and tensions of the last few days would not have done his already ailing heart any good at all, and I think he needs more time to stabilize himself. So for the time being I think he should stay where he is. "

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