India’s Bihar state fights twin threat of virus and floods

PATNA, India (AP) — Monsoon floods have swamped large parts of India’s densely populated Bihar state and displaced more than 300,000 people by Friday, officials said, exacerbating the risk of the coronavirus and stymieing its response to the pandemic.

The floods have killed at least 24 people in the state, where heavy rain has submerged thousands of villages in 14 districts and pushed the already feeble health care system to the wall.

More than 300,000 villagers have been evacuated to relief camps and officials warned of further cloudbursts and heavy rain in the next two days.

India’s National Disaster Response Force said it had deployed 28 of its teams to help with rescue and relief work.

Every year the state faces perennial flooding by the rivers originating from neighboring Nepal that affects millions, but doctors and experts said the bigger worry this year is the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

So far, Bihar has recorded 48,197 cases including 282 deaths.

That’s a far lower death toll than other densely populated states that are witnessing a sharp rise in cases, but with experts warning of multiple peaks in India, Bihar could be facing an uphill task to halt the virus.

“Unless the state government acts on the lines of Delhi government where hotels were turned into extended hospitals and emphasis was laid on testing, the situation would go beyond control,” said Dr. Sunil Kumar, a senior health expert in Bihar.

Kumar said the situation could turn critical because social distancing norms were hardly followed in the flooded districts.

“How can you expect flood-ravaged people taking shelter on highways and embankments to wear masks and maintain social distancing?” said Kumar, adding that the state did not have the human resources to deal with a pandemic.

Bihar is one of the poorest Indian states. Its primary health care system suffers from decades of neglect.

The World Health Organization recommends one doctor for at least 1,000 people, but in Bihar, the ratio is about one for every 17,000 patients.

Referring to official data from 2019, Kumar said the state had only 43% of the doctors, 29% of the nurses and 28% of the lab technicians the government has recommended for its population of nearly 125 million people.

The state is also falling short at testing and has only recently increased daily testing capacity from 10,000 samples to over 14,000. On Thursday, the state’s Health Minister Mangal Pandey said arrangements were made to expedite testing and at least 20,000 tests would be conducted daily.

Overall, Bihar has tested a little more than 500,000 samples so far. In comparison, other densely populated states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have tested more than 2.4 million and 1.9 million samples, respectively.

The state entered a fresh two-week lockdown in mid-July as virus cases spiked. The lockdown was further extended till Aug. 16.

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