It is Gorakhpur redux, the first bad news of the New Year. One hundred children have died in December at the J.K. Lon government hospital in Rajasthan’s Kota, 10 of them within 48 hours. The annual figure is now a harrowing 963, and abysmal hygiene, staff shortage and poor maintenance of infrastructure are to blame. But an internal inquiry has given a clean chit to the hospital! With riders. It has made one alarming admission among others: that cylinders were being provided to patients inside the neonatal intensive care unit in the absence of oxygen lines, resulting in spread of infection.
Not unexpected, too, is the first reaction of chief minister Ashok Gehlot when confronted by the tragedy. It is one of denial. Both he and state health minister Raghu Sharma were quick to cry wolf, with Mr Gehlot remarking that discussions on it were motivated and designed to draw public attention away from the anti-CAA-NRC stir. The 2019 numbers are actually less than the preceding years’ — 1,198 (2014), 1,260 (2015), 1,193 (2016), 1,027 (2017) and 1,005 (2018) — all smartly trotted out. Union health minister Harsh Vardhan has contested these figures, leading to a tactful retort by the CM. But parent experiences and a sudden and suspicious revamp of the hospital after the media coverage tell a different story.
The internal inquiry report pegged close to one half of the fatality figure to extreme weather conditions and exposure. But patients’ relatives reported flies had to be swatted away inside the neonatal ICU and windows had no panes, leading to freezing temperatures inside. Baby warmers prove crucial in such conditions, and yet only 24 of 71 available were working. There were just eight nurses against a requirement of 21, and they were being asked to monitor the oxygen themselves. The hospital had 20 ventilators, but only six were functional, according to its own records. New mothers were being made to share beds and a visiting NCPCR team found broken gates and pigs roaming in the yard. Just like in Gorakhpur, the inquiry committee found the reason behind most of the hospital’s medical devices being unusable to be the lack of an annual maintenance contract.
While health is a state subject, governments irrespective of political ideology have been found sorely wanting in providing its citizens primary healthcare. J.K. Lon is a secondary-level hospital receiving patients even from neighbouring states like Madhya Pradesh. A sobering thought for the Centre will be the fact that it spends only 1.1 per cent of its GDP in this sector, compared to developed nations like Britain, which spends 9.6 per cent. Also that the National Rural Health Mission is a complete failure, with no doctors and few paramedical staff. The floating of Ayushman Bharat notwithstanding, the larger part of our citizenry is unable to reach a health centre when in need and most deaths still occur at home. No amount of renaming of this mission is going to change that.
When will the blamegames end? Far too many children have died....