When we have 108 and 104, why do we need to call the police for health emergencies?

An 80-year-old citizen took ill at night, and succumbed, while the family and neighbours tried desperately to reach health helplines.

When one hears the words ‘patient dignity’, ‘dignity in health care’, ‘dignity in death,’ it conveys that even at their most vulnerable moments, human beings need to be treated with honour and respect. Every patient wants dignity, but are they getting it?

19th May 2020, early morning around 01.45 am, Dhanalakshmi, a senior citizen of our neighbourhood, aged almost 80, was critically ill. Her family and other residents in the building tried to call the 108 and 104 helplines to call for an ambulance. While 108 appeared defunct, 104 was not answered.

With few options left, they approached the nearby nursing homes where Dhanalakshmi had undergone treatments in the past and sought help. These nursing homes refused to extend any assistance, because they were not willing to take chances of bringing in or treating a possible COVID-19 patient.

In the meantime Dhanalakshmi passed away.

One of the residents in the tenement which houses 7 to 8 flats was concerned if COVID-19 could be the reason for her death and wanted to ensure that necessary precautionary measures were taken to sanitize or isolate the building. He approached me around 2.15 am and sought my help.

I dialled the 108 helpline number again, to see if the body could be transported, but again the line appeared to be dysfunctional. The 104 helpline was answered, but the person at the other end was not speaking to me! I could hear the operators chatting among themselves at the other end. After trying to reach them a couple of times desperately, I decided to lodge a complaint with the Police Control Room at 100.

The lady officer who attended the call collected all the information and arranged for the beat patrol officials to visit our neighborhood. It was almost 3.00 am by the time the patrol vehicle turned up. We briefed the officers and asked one of the relatives of the deceased to handle the rest of the matter. The police officer asked us to return to our homes and stay safe.

It was almost 4 am by the time an ambulance from the 108 service reached the location. After examination, they confirmed that it was death due to aging and left it to the relatives to decide if they wanted to move her body to a hospital or not. The family decided to stay at home. The officials left after asking the family to complete funeral formalities by 09.00 am.

As a citizen, I am left wondering as to the utility of the 108 and 104 helplines, if we have to approach the police for issues relating to health and hospitalisation. This was not a stray incident, where a critically ill patient died due to the lack of medical help on time.

I was speaking to one of the SIs manning the beat patrol vehicle on 22nd May. During the course of our conversation about the lack of response from the 108 and 104 helplines, I came to know from the SI that another senior citizen, aged about 71 years, had developed COVID-19 symptoms in the early hours of the day. The family, I am told, tried to reach out to both the 104 and 108 helplines with out much luck and they were also forced to seek police assistance.

The beat officer said that he had attended to the call and had to approach the Collector’s Office, who instructed him to take help from an Assistant Engineer of the Greater Chennai Corporation and arrange for the ambulance.

Our responsibility, too

It has been reported often that 108 and 104 helplines receive several calls which turn out to be fake. Given this situation, the helpline officials choose to wait for the police to go and ascertain the seriousness of the situation before sending an ambulance. We the people are therefore also responsible for the mess, as seen in news reports emerging from across the country.

We have escalated our concern to the offices of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Greater Chennai Corporation, Commissioner of Police and the COVID Helpline by email and through Twitter. As always, we will now need to wait for months for the officials to review and get back to us with an explanation.

Covid-19 is nothing but a wake up call for communities across the world. It is such a shame that even the so called developed nations like United Kingdom, USA, Europe have failed miserably in managing this pandemic.We need to wake up and get our act together in order to guarantee “dignity in life and in death” for our fellow citizens.

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