In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Bihar in the news due to a series of exposes with regard to public healthcare and services delivery. After the recent disclosure of revised COVID death figures following the Patna High Court’s repeated hammering, fake testing numbers is latest addition in the list. Discrepancies in corona testing, i.e. RT-PCR, have come to the fore raising questions on the credibility of the numbers, as claimed by state health department.
In a recent incident, villagers in Kishanganj district cried foul after receiving fake corona RT-PCR test results. Zakir Hussain, a former panchayat samiti member in Pothiya block, Kishanganj, flagged and echoed concerns of fake corona test result alerts to rural folks via text messages. Apparently, a large number of people were recipients of RT-PCR negative test results.
Shah Faisal (23), a resident of village Damalbadi said he underwent a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) and after couple of days, received a message showing a ‘negative’ RT-PCR test that he did not undergo.
Speaking with NewsClick, Faisalsaid: “I was shocked to get such a message without undergoing any RT-PCR test. This propelled me to cross check with fellow villagers and I found that three more people were added to the list of receiving negative test results that did not take place.”
Three people in Patila Basa village in same block received text messages of negative RT-PCR tests. Mohammad Zulfiqar, in his mid-30s, who said he did not undergo any RT-PCR test got a negative result in his inbox as did Md. Shamsher of the same village. Purnia resident Soni Devi, despite undergoing no test, received a text message confirming her to be corona positive on May 18.
With RT-PCR testing at bay and RAT eclipsing all districts, the infection rate saw a 15% dip in May, raising many eyebrows. A total of 13 districts — Muzaffarpur, Sheohar, Begusarai, Buxar, Lakhisarai, Jamui, Nawada, Gaya, Saharsa, Kishanganj, Katihar, Purnea and Araria — undertook 90% corona testing via RAT, doing away with RT-PCR, with several health centres maintaining “fudged” data to mislead the actual scenario with regard to pandemic tackling, the expose showed.
As per medical standards, RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction) is considered the gold-standard method of testing for the SARS-Cov-2 virus. RAT is a relatively less reliable method of COVID testing, which the Bihar government embraced, in order to project a lower pandemic effect.
The tryst with faking corona testing numbers, initiated way back last year, resurged early this year in February when some officials in Jamui district were caught maintaining fake details of patients, which included name, address, contact number etc. Jamui Civil Surgeon Dr. Vijendra Satyarthi, Barhat PHC (primary health centre) in charge Dr. NK Mondal, Sikandara health centre in charge Dr. Sajid Hussain were suspended for “fudging” COVID testing data. Some PHC officials in Sakra were also suspended after they were found to be involved in misplacement of RAT kits.
In Katihar district hospital, RT-PCR test kits were found burnt and thrown behind the hospital premises following which a civil surgeon was summoned by the district administration. According to state government guidelines, PHC officials engaged in COVID testing are PHC accountants, PHC medical officers in-charge, block health managers, block account managers and district programme officers. The civil surgeon heads all health schemes being run in a district.
In the name of testing a population of 14,000, nine villages were kept off in Rohtas district. Malhipur panchayat officials claimed that there was no testing of villagers and reason being given was the long distance of the nearest health centre, which is 7.5 kilometers away from the panchayat.
As per Shishupal, a weaver based in Bhagalpur’s Nathnagar, 200 people across the city had to wait for two weeks to get a RT-PCR report, including and his family members. Bhagalpur Civil Surgeon Dr. Umesh Sharma confirmed a backlog of 30,000 antigen reports, which have been pending for a month.
A massive testing scam was also unearthed in Muzaffarpur where PHCs and district hospital faked COVID testing data and more than 14,000 RAT test kits went missing. District hospital staff got fake testing results, five PHCs in blocks of Musahari, Motipur, Katra, Bochhan and Sakra, instead of testing individuals, planted imaginary figures with wrong details, said district ADM Rajesh Kumar, who traced the data scam after local media reports.
A district health official, on condition of anonymity, said that the Central Drug Store had send 7,050 RAT kits to Musahari PHC, while the records showed the testing count at 8,669. The Motipur PHC showed 8,020 tests despite receiving only 7,400 antigen kits. Likewise, dodgy data were found in Aurai PHC that received 6,000 test kits and showed 6,681 tests.
A Motipur PHC official on condition of anonymity said testing hesitancy induced a low turnout of people across villages, which often led to log books devoid of data. Answering superior officials’ questionnaire on low turnout was never a cake walk. Since last year, the state has been heavily dependent on RAT tests, which was being defended by producing false figures, but at last the Pandora’s box of lies has been exposed.
In April, in Patna High Court, the Bihar government submitted that 40,000 tests were being done per day, but ironically, state Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Dr. Krishna Nandan Singh could not get an RT-PCR test done for his daughter. This irked the high court, which ended up lambasting the state government.
The writer is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bihar.