Bhopal: Three 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy survivors died last week after the Madhya Pradesh government acquired the central government-run super specialty hospital, Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC), reserved for 1984 gas tragedy-hit victims to treat the COVID-19 patients.
The 350-bedded multi-specialty hospital BMHRC was established in 1998 on the directives of the Supreme Court to provide free healthcare to the gas tragedy survivors. Nevertheless, the hospital administration not only shut the OPD department, but also forcefully discharged 86 under-treatment patients (including dialysis patients) from the hospital between March 23 and 24.
Furthermore, the hospital administration also asked the tragedy-hit Intensive Care Unit (ICU) patients or seriously ill patients to shift to any other hospital, adding that their treatment will be discontinued otherwise. Hence, they shifted/discharged two critical patients, who died the following week.
The state, which as of now has close to 310 COVID-19 cases, issued an order on March 23 stating that BMHRC will be turned into an isolation and treatment centre solely for novel coronavirus patients. The state government now controls the entire administration of the hospital, under directions of the District Magistrate.
Following this, on March 24, the director of BMHRC issued an order saying “all health care services” in the hospital will only be provided to the COVID-19 patients and no one else. Ever since, the hospital has shut its doors for the gas tragedy survivors. Interestingly, even two weeks after the announcement, it's lying empty. No COVID-19 patients have been admitted to the hospital.
Patients die after hospital denies treatment
Fifty-five-year-old Kalu Ram, a resident of Shahjahanabad, was discharged from the Pulmonary Department of the BMHRC on March 24 and transferred to Hamidia Hospital where he succumbed to death on March 28. He was a gas tragedy survivor and was suffering from lung infection.
Another death reported was of a 70-year-old woman who was evicted from the hospital. According to a report published by the Times of India on April 2, she was under treatment at the Gastroenterology Department. “Upon her premature release the patient’s family was not complexly aware of the treatment protocol. They reached out to a consultant after the deceased victim bloating, especially in the abdominal area. She died at her residence on Thursday evening, confirmed a family member of the deceased. The family refused to be named,” said the report.
A gas tragedy-hit survivor who was taking treatment via the OPD Department of the hospital died in the wee hours of April 6, 2020. The fifty-five-year-old Mahesh Kartik* (name changed) was also Bhopal’s first COVID-19 death.
Kartik’s son, Gaurav said, "He used to take treatment from the BMHRC and suffered respiratory trouble. Due to the closure of the OPD department, he hadn't consulted anyone and as a result, his condition aggravated. On April 2, when his condition worsened, we called up a couple of hospitals and pleaded for an ambulance, but they refused. At last, a hospital agreed after charging a hefty amount and he was ultimately admitted,” he said.
“The following day, during the tests, the doctors noticed the symptoms of COVID-19. His swab samples were taken. He was put on a ventilator. The day he tested COVID-19 positive, he died the following evening,” said Gaurav.
Gaurav said his father was mostly confined to home due to the effects of exposure to the killer gas in 1984. “We don’t know how he contracted coronavirus,” he said, adding that the family had to spend Rs 90,000 on his treatment in just three days. “Had BMHRC been open to gas victims, we would have been saved from the financial ruin,” he said.
On the other hand, even as the BMHRC awaits its COVID-19 cases, two bouncers are reportedly guarding the gates of the hospital to keep the gas-hit victims away.
"The way the government is reacting, it seems that Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims are not humans. Government doesn't care about them. COVID-19 patients are patients, but gas survivors are not. They have been left to die by shutting the doors of the hospital," said Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group of Information and Action.
Gas tragedy survivors knock on the court’s door
The 68-year-old petitioner, Munni Bee, who has undergone a tracheostomy and has been in the general ICU under critical medical care of the BMHRC, knocked on the Supreme Court’s door when the administration asked her to leave the hospital and make space for the COVID-19 patients.
In a joint writ petition to the Supreme Court, Munni Bee and Bhopal Group for Information and Action have challenged the orders of the state government and the hospital, saying that these violated Articles 14 and 19 of the Indian Constitution.
It is stated that the patients who have been suffering from Methyl Isocyanate poisoning as a result of the gas tragedy were more vulnerable than others to the coronavirus outbreak. BMHRC is the only super-specialty hospital equipped to take care of their needs.
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Munni Bee and Bhopal Group for Information and Action have informed the Court that at the midnight of March 24, the hospital had started discharging all patients, “...over 80 % of which were those with history of acute exposure to Union Carbide’s poisonous gas from the Intensive Care, Surgical and Medical wards in the hospital and succeeded in discharging 86 patients therefrom”.
The petition states that as of March 24, “all the Emergency Services of the Casualty Ward of BMHRC have been closed,” along with the closure of “all the dialysis facilities from March 25”. It goes on to note that the first COVID-19 patient to die in Bhopal was a gas tragedy victim.
“There are about 30 gas victims who undergo dialysis twice a week at the hospital, whose lives, without timely and quality dialysis, are in perennial danger," the petition says.
The plea further makes a case that such conversion of a specialised hospital to treat COVID-19 patients was a breach of the “terms of the Trust Deed under which the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre was set up” under the directions of the Supreme Court in 1991.
“Proposal of an isolation centre to be set up for treatment of the Covid-19 patients by shutting down the entire hospital to Bhopal gas victims in need of Intensive and urgent care is arbitrary and unreasonable as the BMHRC hospital has a total capacity of 350 bed.”
The petitioners have urged the Court that there are alternate hospitals like Pulmonary Medicine Centre, Gas Relief Hospital, located in and near Jahangirabad, which can be used for COVID-19 patients instead of the hospital which is solely meant for the victims of the industrial disaster.
After hearing the petition on April 7, the bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde has asked the petitioners to approach the Madhya Pradesh High Court at Jabalpur at once.
Advocate Karuna Nundy, appearing for the petitioners, submitted that they would move the High Court immediately.
Gas victims more vulnerable to COVID-19, says activist
Activists working with gas victims said they had written to everyone concerned — from the Union health minister to Principal Secretary of Health, Madhya Pradesh — cautioning that gas victims could be more vulnerable to COVID-19 since their immunity was already compromised and BMHRC was their sole refuge. And their fear has turned out to be real after 55-year-old Mahesh Kartik* (name changed), a gas-hit survivor lost his life to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is baffling. We have more than 70 COVID-19 patients in Bhopal and nobody has yet been admitted to BMHRC. They could have easily created an isolation ward on the first floor of the hospital with separate entry and exit. There was absolutely no reason to take over the hospital and stop treatment of the gas victims,” said co-convener of Bhopal Group for Information &Action (BGIA), Rachna Dhingra.
Purnendu Shukla, member of Supreme Court Monitoring Committee created for supervision of the gas relief hospital, said: “It is an important issue. I tried to talk to the CM, but it wasn’t possible. Now, I am writing to him, requesting him to reimburse the medical bill of the deceased gas victim and announce relief for his family.”
When contacted, spokesperson for Bhopal district administration, Arun Rathore, said that guidelines issued in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic by the government are being followed. “What has been done is in the greater interest of the people of Bhopal. As far as this patient is concerned, whatever instructions are received from the government regarding reimbursement of medical expenses or relief to his family, will be followed,” he said.
Despite several attempts, Director of the BMHRC Prabha Desikan could not be contacted. Meanwhile, the public relations officer of the BMHRC, Mazhar Ullah, refused to make any comment saying, “The director is the sole authority to make comments on this.”
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