This August, sixty children died within forty-eight hours in a government-run hospital in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India. Hospital staff say the children died because of a lack of oxygen, while government officials claim the deaths were due to a range of understandable medical causes. Technicians at the hospital had informed the medical officer of dwindling supplies of oxygen a week earlier, and had filed a second notice the day before the crisis began. But nothing was done.
Opposition leaders lost no time in traveling to Gorakhpur to stand outside the hospital and make statements condemning the government’s callous ineptitude, while the government turned its wrath on the company supplying the oxygen, saying that “a probe would be initiated” to determine why it had failed in its duty to deliver a timely supply.
That probe won’t take long. The oxygen company had not been paid for months and a bill of 7 million rupees ($110,000) was pending. Notices were repeatedly ignored, and the company had warned the hospital in writing on August 1 that it could not continue without payment. When the acute shortage hit, the district magistrate, under whose authority the hospital functions, finally swung into action, procuring emergency supplies from somewhere at 1 a.m., but it was too little, too late. Of the sixty children who died, at least fourteen of them were infants in the neonatal intensive-care unit.
My organization for disabled children has worked in a government hospital in India for the past seven years. We’ve seen firsthand the inefficient, callous, and unfeeling care that the poor receive. (Only the poor use government hospitals.) But we’ve seen the same treatment meted out to hospital staff, who are given almost no support and are expected to perform heroic tasks in impossible conditions.
A typical pediatrician sees between eighty and a hundred children in an out-patient clinic every day. The doctor has no time to get information about allergies, drug interactions, or complex causes. With no secretarial staff, records are not maintained anyway. Each child is a new case without a history. Given the sheer number of patients, no doctor could be expected to remember anything about the last time a particular child had come.