Efforts to silence whistleblowers and cover up negligence will set dangerous precedents that will imperil India’s healthcare system as a whole
What makes the Gorakhpur tragedy one of the saddest of its kind ever to have happened in this part of the world is the ugly way in which the State administration under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has been trying to portray it. For the BJP government, which says the children could have died of Japanese encephalitis, the tragedy is some kind of routine affair. This is unprecedented in the history of India. Generally, calamities of such magnitude, however embarrassing they are, get State receipt, initiating an independent probe into the event. During the Chennai floods in December 2015, 18 patients had died in the city’s MIOT hospital due to a power failure, triggering a controversy across the State and beyond, but the hospital authorities and the Tamil Nadu government, despite some initial hiccups, rose up to the occasion and admitted the failure and took remedial actions and compensation processes. In the case of Gorakhpur, the government’s denials will stand in the way of an independent probe and will end up ensuring that the victims and their families would never get justice.
Make no mistake, this is not a business as usual medical crisis. At least 60 children died in a span of seven days at the BRD Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh. BRD Hospital is one of the key public health institutions in the region and thousands of locals depend on it to meet their healthcare needs, especially critical care. It was reported in national media that parents were witness to their children collapsing in front of them and they spent long hours, trying to get doctors to attend to their children, arranging for medicines, including basic cotton and glucose injections, running around for blood. Newspapers are abuzz with eyewitness accounts of how the horror show unfolded, and how the administration showed alarming apathy to the plight of the patients, mostly belonging to the lower class communities. The Indian Express reported that on August 7 itself several people attending their family members or relatives noticed that the oxygen-level indicator outside the neonatal intensive care unit at BRD Hospital showed low level. It is a surprise to any sane person why no action was taken to address this shortage early on. There were several options, including moving patients who required critical care to other hospitals or buying oxygen supply from other players on short notice and on temporary basis. No such action was taken, leading to a catastrophe of this proportion.
It is absurd, to say the least, to put the blame for such a blatant, open case of medical negligence on Japanese encephalitis, a disease Uttar Pradesh has been fighting for years now. It is obvious from the quantum of the deaths and the timeframe within which they occurred that this is a man-made disaster, which could have been avoided had there been enough regulatory scrutiny and responsible administration. The State government under Adityanath must be held responsible for this. Ideally, Adityanath should take moral responsibility of this tragedy and resign, which, of course, is a big ask given the power dynamics in Uttar Pradesh. Heads should roll, no doubt. State Health Minister Siddharth Nath Singh has no right to continue in that position and he should step down immediately as has been demanded by the Opposition. And Adityanath should promise the state and ensure a fair probe into the tragedy and cease from statements and actions that can make it a farce.
Equally absurd are efforts from BJP members and their social media warriors to paint such a gigantic humanitarian crisis in shallow colours and draw in absurd comparisons with, say, dengue deaths in Kerala or fever fatalities in other parts of the country. Such endeavours, unfortunately seen to be endorsed by, among others, BJP MP and Republic TV-funder Rajeev Chandrasekhar, is an insult to the very culture this country represents. Any effort to play down the Gorakhpur’s man-made mayhem — which includes acts to silence whistleblowers and other volunteers — can set uncalled for and dangerous precedents and will only end up endangering public healthcare institutions in the country (The action taken against Kafeel Khan, the doctor “who saved children’s lives”, is one example). Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his tact and tacit approach to tackling critical issues, should not let his personal biases and favouritism stand in the way of justice for the poor and downtrodden people who have lost their dear ones in Gorakhpur. Two days since the tragedy, he hasn’t uttered a word. His twitter handle, which buzzes whenever there’s an accident or tragedy in other parts of the world, is silent. Will he take steps to address the country’s healthcare crisis in general and hold those who are responsible for the Gorakhpur tragedy responsible?
[Image Courtesy: Govt of Uttar Pradesh Website]