Last Saturday’s tragedy at the district hospital at Bhandara in eastern Maharashtra is no less gut-churning as the fire in Kolkata’s AMRI hospital in December 2011, though the casualty toll in the latter was far, far higher than in the first.
Ten newborns ~ aged between one and three months ~ have perished in the fire in the Maharashtra hospital’s neo-natal care ward, an essential facility in any hospital that boasts a gynaecological ward.
The cry of a mother ~ “we have lost our daughter even before she was named” ~ has poignantly underscored the enormity of the tragedy. The fact that only seven of the 17 babies were rescued highlights the horribly belated promptitude of the staff, but can bring cold comfort to the bereaved families. It is hard not to wonder whether the 10 newborns ~ who died wailing in darkness ~ had come to this world to die.
And so it has been at Bhandara. Central to the gruesome end is believed to be a short circuit or a defective air-conditioner. Though these are fairly common problems in an electrical unit, the fact of the matter must be that little or no action was taken by the hospital authorities in the face of complaints relating to fluctuating power in the ward.
Maharashtra’s health minister attempts to be wise after the event when he announces the formation of a six-member inquiry committee, helmed by the director of health services, to conduct the probe and furnish a report in three days. There is no word yet about the power fluctuations and the feet-dragging over corrective action.
Equally, the death of ten newborns has prompted the chief minister, Uddhav Thackeray, to order a fire audit of all the hospitals. This ought to have been in place long before the infants died. What he calls a “heartwrenching and mind nubbing” disaster might not have occurred had the authorities been more alert.
Going by offical reports, three of the ten infants died of burn injuries, while seven others died of suffocation caused by smoke. Forty-eight hours after the tragedy, there is speculation still over what precisely ignited the blaze beyond the official version that it “could be a short circuit”.
The subtext of the controversy must be that there was little or no maintenance in the four-storey building that boasts a Special Newborn Care Unit, indeed a section that requires continuous supply of oxygen and not least because the babies were underweight. In a word, they did not receive the emergency attention and care that they were entitled to.
The Maharashtra government has been blighted. The other and more disturbing aspect must be the frequency with which infants and newsborns die across the country in government hospitals, even if it may not always be from asphyxiation, From Gorakhpur to Aligarh, and from Shahdol to Vidisha, infants in large numbers have been victims of the state’s healthcare system. This must end.