With the casualty toll from swine flu rising to 18 in West Bengal – the death of an 18-month-old included – the sclerotic public health system has now assumed scandalous proportions. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the response of at least two government hospitals has been sufficiently negligent to deserve severe stricture. Indeed, the negligence is almost criminal if the two hospitals have had to be ticked off by the health department for refusing to attend to, let alone admit, a pregnant woman who tested positive. The health secretary merely tries to be wise after the event when he assures the media that “those found guilty will be taken to task”. The nub of the matter must be that the department has stumbled in trying to discharge the “task” at hand – to afford a semblance of protection and relief to the sick and the dying. We do not know whether Calcutta Medical College and Hospital boasts the wherewithal to treat swine flu; yet we do know that the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Beliaghata turned away Neha Dhali (30) even before test results had been received.

The system isn’t merely sclerotic; it appears to have been afflicted by a serious ailment of its own. A tragic turn of events when one reflects on the Chief Minister&’s comical aside when she diagnosed swine flu as the outcome of mosquito bites. In the event, the health department&’s praxis has been less than humane. Not that the private hospitals, despite their atrocious charges, have been above board. The health administration has had to serve show-cause notices on no fewer than four such supposedly leading establishments for “sending swine flu patients” home before treatment. It is cause for alarm if the government is now compelled to admit that Neha Dhali&’s predicament exemplifies that hospitals – public or private – are yet to make a “serious effort” to address the ailment.

For all the rarefied discourse over growth and development, a vital segment of public policy has collapsed in West Bengal in the wake of the swine flu. And in death, little Shipra Rakshit (18 months) personifies the extent of the malaise that has generally been ignored by the political class in the midst of intra-party bickering.

Sad to reflect, even diagnostic facilities are not in place. With just two such centres in the city, it takes a minimum of 48 hours for a test report to be furnished. Enough have perished and more than 230 people have been afflicted already; both the public and private establishments are yet to put their shoulder to the wheel.