The Big Story: Heal thyself
The Gorakhpur incident, in which 30 children died over a 48-hour period on August 10-11 in a major government hospital, is the first major crisis faced by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath since he took charge earlier this year. Unfortunately, the government’s response to the tragic deaths and its approach to the entire incident leave much to be desired.
By now, Adityanath has made the requisite noises. With the Union Health Minister JP Nadda sitting next to him, the chief minister said on Sunday that a special team has been constituted to investigate the deaths and that those found responsible will be given “exemplary punishment”. This comes after a series of responses from the government that not only imperil an impartial probe into the cause of the deaths, but also raise questions about the instinctive responses of the Adityanath administration.
Uttar Pradesh Health Minister Siddharth Nath Singh has been deputed to tell the public that the deaths of the children were not due to a disruption in oxygen supply, caused because the hospital failed to pay the supplier despite receiving many warnings about the issue. Singh has chosen instead to argue that the deaths took place primarily before the oxygen supply was cut off on August 10. Adityanath too has made this claim, blaming the deaths on Japanese Encephalitis instead.
These claims seem like an attempt to blame the deaths on a disease that is endemic to the area, rather than on the government hospital’s inability to ensure crucial oxygen supply. Yet it seems too early to have made such a conclusion, especially after reports from parents whose admitted children were being given oxygen through manual pumps as early as August 8. Meanwhile, even as the government insists the deaths are not due to the oxygen supply, it has nevertheless suspended the principal who was responsible for overseeing the supply. Even more alarmingly, despite the huge media scrutiny of the hospital after the deaths were reported, it was unable to secure its supply of oxygen until August 13.
Doubling down on his argument that oxygen was not to blame, Singh also claimed that in August every year, the hospital regularly sees around 20 deaths of children affected by encephalitis every day. While these numbers do not square with official figures put out by the hospital, they should still be a source of alarm. If 20 children are dying everyday at a major hospital for eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there are bigger problems, not least of which is an inability to secure crucial oxygen supply.
Then there is Union Minister of State for Health Faggan Singh Kulaste: “There may be a conspiracy behind this incident. It can be clearly observed from the comparison of the figures of children’s death before 9th and after that.” Kulaste’s response is indicative of the broader Bharatiya Janata Party approach to any criticism of Adityanath. Before even examining the facts, and even as the top leaders call for it “not to be politicised”, the BJP is already out defending the its government and arguing that any questions must be part of some targeted attack. This lack of good faith in dealing with what should be handled as a tragic incident is on display from across the party.
The Adityanath government must examine why its instinct is to immediately insist that the deaths could not possibly be the government hospital’s fault – thereby imperiling an impartial probe – and why its administration displays a serious lack of good faith in its handling of a genuine health crisis. This may be the first crisis Adityanath has had to handle, but if image management is all the administration cares for, it certainly will not be the last.
The Big Scroll
- Poor state of medical infrastructure in Gorakhpur hospital was highlighted by CAG in May.
- 72 hours, more than 30 deaths later, oxygen supply to Gorakhpur hospital is still to be restored.
- A tragedy foretold: The questions Uttar Pradesh government must answer for Gorakhpur deaths.
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