Why Bhopal gas leak survivors find themselves in double jeopardy

Patients at BMHRC hospital, many of them survivors of the 1984 gas tragedy, who were critically ill and on ventilator support were abruptly denied treatment after March 24th when it was designated a COVID-only hospital. Inevitably, some of them died.

They are just a statistic, as they have been for decades now. The survivors of Bhopal’s killer gas tragedy. And if the deadly gas made them and their children victims of lifelong illnesses, the coronavirus threatens to literally kill them off, by denying them what little medical treatment they were receiving at the only hospital specifically set up for treating gas victims, the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC).

On March 23, a government order suddenly turned BMHRC into an isolation and treatment centre exclusively for coronavirus patients. The treatment of 80 gas-affected patients admitted there was abruptly stopped and on March 24th, all were discharged to make way for the COVID-affected. Doctors at BMHRC said they had to attend to corona-infected patients on priority.

Among those discharged were Tulsi Bai, Munni Bee and Ramshree Bai who, their relatives said, were on ventilator support and in critical condition. They were shifted to different hospitals where doctors did not attend to them properly, the relatives added. Munni Bee, 68, who had been on ventilator support, died on April 9th.

Munni Bee was not the only gas affected victim of the government order. Another gas-affected woman died on April 2nd after being forcibly discharged from BMHRC. Harvansh Kaur, a gas victim and heart patient discharged from BHMC on March 24th died at her home on March 30th. Another gas leak survivor who was receiving treatment through BHMRC’s outpatient department died on April 6th after the hospital OPD shut down.

Members of organisations working for the gas-affected people in Bhopal strongly opposed the government’s move to take over BMHRC. They pointed out that patients who were critically ill and had been undergoing treatment were abruptly denied treatment after the March 24th order. They said the BMHRC was a central government-run super specialty hospital reserved for 1984 gas tragedy-victims, and treatment of gas survivors and other patients should continue along with that of coronavirus patients.

Activist Rachna Dhingra added that four gas tragedy victims died in the hospital for lack of treatment after BMHRC was reserved for covid patients.

Other patients (around 65) undergoing treatment at BHMRC too suffered the same fate. They were told that isolation wards for virus patients had be set up and so they would have to leave. Some were advised to go to government run Hamidia Hospital. Four of them subsequently died due to lack of treatment. One died at Hamidia, another at BMHRC itself, and two at home.

One such victim was 80-year-old Kaluram Ghunghrale, the father of a Bhopal police constable, who though free of the coronovirus, lost his life as hospitals and doctors refused to treat him. “I ran from pillar to post to save my father’s life but sadly could do nothing,” said the constable.

Kaluram, a retired Raj Bhavan employee had been undergoing treatment for serious illnesses like hypertension at BMHRC since February 27th and was among the patients evicted. He got admitted at Hamidia Hospital for further treatment. But doctors at Hamidia did not treat him properly and he died on March 28th, the constable alleged.

State health department a COVID hot spot

Finally, on April 15th, the state government withdrew its earlier order notifying BMHRC as COVID-19 hospital following stiff opposition from the people. But private hospitals say they have been ordered by the government to shut down their OPDs.

At several hospitals, patients have been summarily discharged although they were undergoing treatment. And fresh cases are being turned back. Even though Bhopal Collector Tarun Pithode insisted that “instructions have been given to all private hospitals in Bhopal to provide treatment to all patients and refer them to JP or Hamidia Hospital if the patient was suspected to be suffering from coronavirus.”

As of April 29th, the number of COVID-19 positive cases in Bhopal stood at 2387 with COVID deaths at 120. The city’s major hospitals are facing a serious shortage of doctors and paramedic staff as 90 doctors, 30 nurses, and 20 ward boys of Gandhi Medical College have been quarantined after five doctors were found positive in Hamidia and Sultana hospitals. The doctors and other hospital staff engaged in the treatment of COVID-19 positive patients constantly run the risk of contracting the virus, given the shortage of PPEs for the healthcare workers.

The real fight against COVID-19 began in Madhya Pradesh only in April as both the Congress and BJP were busy playing politics. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who took over as chief minister on March 23rd, spent the next few days in appointing his favourite officials to key posts. By then, the pandemic had gone out of control.

Initially, more than 95 coronavirus cases in Bhopal were linked to the state health department and their families. The health department, which had the responsibility of fighting the pandemic in the state, itself became a hotspot with officials either in hospital or in self-quarantine.

Left in the lurch

Not surprisingly, non-COVID-19 patients are being left to fend for themselves. For instance, about 2500 patients used to receive treatment at Hamidia Hospital daily before COVID-19, now that number has dipped to about 700. Similarly, the number of OPD patients at Bhopal’s district hospital, popularly known as JP Hospital, has fallen to 500 from the pre-covid 1600 a day.

The OPDs at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Bhopal and Chirayu Hospital have closed. Earlier, about 2500 patients used to receive treatment daily at AIIMS OPD and between 500 and 800 at OPDs of BMHRC and Chirayu. The OPD at BMHRC, however, has now resumed operations.

“All OPDs are operational at Hamidia Hospital,” however claimed Kalpana Shrivastava, Bhopal Divisional Commissioner. “Emergency services are being provided round-the-clock. If a patient reaches for treatment, he will be admitted and given complete treatment.”

Families of patients, especially of those who died from denial or lack of proper treatment at these hospitals, however tell a different story.

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