When reports of nearly 30 children dead in 48 hours in Gorakhpur's Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College and Hospital trickled in on Friday night, it proved to be yet another ghastly example of the government's ailing public healthcare system in India.
Oxygen supply stopped
The BRD Medical College and Hospital is the largest medical hospital in the Gorakhpur region. The death of these 30 children within a span of 48 hours and 63 children in the last five days for various reasons including lack of oxygen supply at the Uttar Pradesh hospital which was stopped when the hospital failed to clear its dues of over Rs 68 lakh. A letter by the vendor — Pushpa Sales Pvt Ltd — addressed to the hospital chief suggested an outstanding payment of Rs 68,65,702 was the reason behind the disruption of the oxygen supply. Gorakhpur's district magistrate Rajeev Rautela confirmed that there was a shortage of liquid oxygen at the medical college.
While the administration acknowledged the oxygen supply was halted, it denied that this was the reason behind the deaths, The Telegraph reported. The Telegraph report also said that the vendor had stopped the oxygen supply on Wednesday evening — shortly after Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's afternoon visit to inaugurate a new ten bed ICU at the hospital — because of the unpaid bills. It was later found that the company's supply contract had ended in March this year. Incidentally, the chief minister had visited the ward where children infected with encephalitis were admitted.
Seventeen children died in the neo-natal intensive care unit, while eight died in the pediatric ward and five in the Acute Encephalitis Syndrome ward.
Initial denials and attempt to cover up
As the news of the death of the children spread like wildfire, it invited scorn and shock over the gravity of the tragedy. The Uttar Pradesh government initially denied the media reports and said they were misleading. A statement by the state Information Department said reports shown by "some TV channels as misleading" and that the district magistrate was personally stationed at the medical college to keep an eye on the situation. On Friday night, the government ordered a magisterial probe.
Parents left aghast by apathy
The father of an infant from Padrauna told media persons that there was acute shortage of oxygen and accused authorities of lying to the media. "I am ready to hear the worst about my child," he said amid flowing tears, reported IANS.
Another distraught father, Deep Chandra from Basti district also aired similar sentiments and said that for the last 48 hours, there was no oxygen supply and the children admitted were left to die despite prayers and requests to the officials of the medical college.
Another father Deep Chand had stepped out to buy medicines for his 10-day-old son in the neo-natal ward of the BRD hospital and found him dead when he returned half-an-hour later, reported the Hindustan Times.
State govt wakes up to act
After 4.30 pm on Saturday, the BRD Medical College Principal, Rajiv Mishra was suspended. He said he had written his resignation even before the government sacked him and took responsibility for the death of the children. He also said that the hospital had paid the gas company on time and no death happened because of low oxygen.
Politicians hijack tragedy for mileage
Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday expressed her deep shock at the tragic death and said that her heart goes out to the families of the innocent children who fell prey to "gross negligence and incorrigible misconduct on the part of the authorities." She called upon the Uttar Pradesh government to take immediate cognizance of the crime and bring to book those responsible and asked Congress workers to provide relief to the families of the victims.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi held the BJP government responsible and said in tweet that the negligent party must be punished.
On Saturday morning, Uttar Pradesh health minister Siddhartha Nath Singh and medical education minister Ashutosh Tandon left for the BRD Medical College and Hospital to review the situation. Under attack from the Opposition, Siddhartha Nath Singh asked them not to "make this political", reported IANS. Adityanath reportedly told the two ministers to "not spare anyone found guilty".
During all this time, till about 1 pm, there was no official statement from Yogi Adityanath's office or from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This created a huge furore on Twitter as well where "#ModiMustSpeak" began trending.
Senior Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Sanjay Singh slammed the state government over the incident and called for the sacking of the health minister and other concerned officials.
Vaibhav Maheshwari, state spokesman of AAP told IANS, "Tt was a matter of shame that the chief minister was mum on such a serious issue and that the state government was trying to defuse facts".
Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari demanded strict action be taken against those resposnible. "There are clearly two dimensions to it, that of criminal culpability of all those who are responsible - the hospital administration, the oxygen supplier and the district administration which is supposed to exercise superintendence over the hospital, and the other is the moral responsibility of the chief minister," PTI quoted Tiwari as saying.
"While all those responsible must be charged with criminal culpability accounting to murder, there is a moral dimension which the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and his health minister must take responsibility for and resign immediately," said Tiwari.
The Uttar Pradesh Opposition parties tore into the Yogi Adityanath government over the incident and demanded resignation of the state health and medical education ministers. Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who visited the BRD Medical College hospital along with the party's state unit chief Raj Babbar, said Adityanath should personally apologise for the tragedy.
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati also lashed out at the Adityanath government. She said the state government's callousness led to the tragedy and called for a high-level probe into the incident. Mayawati said a three-member fact finding team from her party will visit the medical college. "The BJP will never accept its mistake and so I leave it to their discretion to remove those responsible," she said.
Yogi Adityanath breaks silence
Yogi Adityanath finally addressed the issue on Saturday evening in Lucknow and said that encephalitis was a challenge and blamed the incident on lack of cleanliness. Union Minister of State for Health Anupriya Patel, who will visit Gorakhpur on Sunday, was also present at the press conference.
Addressing a gathering in Allahabad earlier in the day, Adityanath told the gathering that the death of these children in his hometown was caused by filth and scourge of open defecation. "There are vector-borne diseases, such as encephalitis, you must be hearing media reports of BRD medical college these days...it is a tragedy that lives of young children have been snuffed out at such young age because we do not lead a clean and hygienic life," he said while reminding the crowd that the disease has been the bane of eastern Uttar Pradesh since 1978.
"Unclean surroundings are causing the untimely death of children," he added while praising Narendra Modi for his Swacch Bharat initiative. To further distance the ruling BJP-led government from the issue, he said, "The governments cannot be the problem, they are solutions and if they are problems in themselves they have no right to continue," IANS reported.
The state government's first serious response came around around 3 pm on Saturday, the state government finally responded and said appropriate action will be taken. "Whoever is found guilty in the tragic and painful incident at BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur will certainly face stringent action," Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya told reporters in Lucknow.
The government, however, denied that the all deaths took place due to lack of oxygen. "We have come to the conclusion that the deaths of children in the hospital did not take place due to shortage of gas in the hospital," said health minister Siddharth Nath Singh. He claimed that when the death of seven children was reported during 24 hours, there was no shortage of gas cylinders.
After Siddharth Nath Singh admitted that oxygen supply was cut off for two hours, Newslaundry published a report which claims that most of the deaths on 10 and 11 August happened because people were relying on cylinders. When the oxygen supply was stopped at 7.30 pm on 11 August, there were only 52 jumbo cylinders at BRD Medical College on which the authorities relied to manage supply from 1.30 pm the same day, the report said.
PMO steps in
After 3.30 pm on Saturday, the Prime Minister Office tweeted that Narendra Modi was closely monitoring the situation in Uttar Pradesh and said that Union minister of state for health Anupriya Patel and Union health secretary will take stock of situation.
Union health minister JP Nadda has also sought a report from the Uttar Pradesh health department on the deaths of the children.
Encephalitis havoc in Uttar Pradesh an annual affair
Encephalitis is a deadly disease which claims hundreds of lives in the state every year. According to a report by the Directorate of National Vector Borne Diseases Control Programme, 26,686 cases of encephalitis were reported in Uttar Pradesh between 2010 and August 2017. Of this, 24,668 cases were of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) and 2,018 of Japanese Encephalitis (JE). Out of those reportedly suffering from AES, 4,093 deaths were registered in the same period i.e. 19 percent of people with AES died in Uttar Pradesh. On the other hand, there were 308 JE deaths registered in the state i.e. 15 percent of those who had reportedly JE between 2010-2017 eventually died.
BRD Medical College no stranger to tragedies
BRD Medical College and Hospital is not unfamiliar to tragedy. Since 1978, this hospital has an average of over 200 deaths per bed, making Gorakhpur highly endemic to encephalitis, notes TS Sudhir in this Firstpost article.
Siddhartha Nath Singh claimed no one from the hospital had informed them about the issue of lack of oxygen and said: "In August 2015, 668 deaths took place in the paediatric section of the hospital. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, 17 or 18 deaths per day on an average were reported from the BRD Medical College."
According to an RTI reply, a Department of Pediatrics report stated that from 2009 till 2011, 3,745 children had died in the hospital. Further, the report also revealed that the incubator, pulse oximeter and infant ventilators in the hospital are out of order.
Poor health spending in India
When it comes to public spending on healthcare, India lags behind abysmally. Research by medical journal Lancet showed that India ranked 154 out of 195 countries in terms of healthcare access, far behind countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Ghana and Liberia. India spends only 5 percent of its GDP on public healthcare while China spends 10.4 percent of its budget on healthcare. India is even superseded by Uzbekistan (10.7 percent), Tanzania (12.3) percent, Kenya (12.8 percent), and Nicaragua (24 percent).
Published Date: Aug 13, 2017 08:08 AM | Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 12:12 PM