Thirty children have died in the last 48 hours (as of August 12) at the BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh. Sixty had died if taking into account five days prior to August 12. The children were all aged below 12. Many of them were newborns.
Investigations by the media revealed that the deaths were apparently caused by oxygen shortages. An anonymous official further revealed that the private company that supplied oxygen to the hospital had withdrawn its equipment, due to the hospital not paying their bills (estimated at US$50,000) to the company. The company says it sent nine reminders and a legal notice about overdue payments for oxygen.
Chief Medical Superintendent Dr R S Shukla denied these accusations, claiming the deaths were unrelated to the issue. Dr Shukla explained the deaths were not all caused by the same condition, citing 10 being due to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and others due to “delivery related issues”, though he did not provide specific details.
Though the hospital claimed to have made alternative arrangements for oxygen supplies, a magisterial probe has acknowledged oxygen shortages could have been the cause of the incident. District magistrate Rajeev Rautela said in a press conference “The BRD principal told us that out of an outstanding of Rs 70 lakh, Rs 35 lakh was paid to the Lucknow-based firm. But it denied receiving the money.” Though the magistrate later notes that as the hospital claims to have an alternative supply, the charge may be ruled out.
Criticism of officials
Criticism of a number of officials has been vehement in the wake of the tragedy. Twitter messages by Akhilesh Yadav, the former chief minister and opposition SP leader, took an accusatory tone following the incident. He called for the resignation of the state health minister Siddharth Nath Singh and for compensation of Rs 20 lakh to be paid to the families of each deceased child. The tweet is highly critical of the way in which the deaths were handled
“Kins of the deceased were shooed away after handing over dead bodies to them. Post mortem examinations not done on dead bodies. Admission cards were taken out of records. Extremely sad.”
The lack of disclosure presents the newborn deaths as suspicious, and a lack of post mortem examination further casts doubt on the situation. The deaths due to encephalitis are however much more easily explained.
The hospital receives a large number of patients with encephalitis. Uttar Pradesh regularly sees outbreaks of Japanese encephalitis despite vaccination programmes being in place since 2006. Due to the early start to the mosquito season, it is not unexpected that deaths due to encephalitis would suddenly increase. Criticism over the conduct of the hospital and state government continues, however.
Many have targeted their criticism at the state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Raj Babbar, president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Coxmmittee, called for Adityanath to resign. He described the deaths of the children as “a massacre” and “what is bound to happen when undeserving people lead.” Accentuating this in the eyes of many commentators is the fact that Adityanath represented Gorakhpur in the Indian Parliament from 1998 until his resignation earlier this month.
Some have gone even further in their criticism of the chief minister. Sanjay Singh, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), called the incident “a criminal act.” He opined that “charges of murder should be registered against the chief minister, health minister and other top officials involved.”
Singh also attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his silence on the issue. He accused Modi of having “all the time to tweet about happenings around the time world, but…no time to spare a word on the Gorakhpur tragedy.”
The only terminations so far as a consequence of the tragedy have been two hospital officials. The head of the hospital, Dr Rajeev Mishra, has been suspended for laxity. Mishra insists he sent multiple reminders attempting to the state government to procure funds for oxygen. He has garnered support from the Indian Medical Association (IMA).
The other dismissal has proven even more controversial. Dr Kafeel Ahmad, the head of the hospital’s paediatrics department, has been removed from hospital duties because of the tragedy. This has provoked criticism due to what many saw as Ahmad’s heroic conduct during the crisis. The doctor is said to have driven to neighbouring facilities to borrow oxygen cylinders and using his own debit card to pay a supplier Rs 10,000 for further supplies.
An investigation into the circumstances of the tragedy are currently ongoing.