With Doctors and Patients Left Unattended, Who Is Indian Healthcare Caring For?

On Monday, my mother woke up to the news of her cousin’s death. As the family grieved through faltering mobile networks, memories of summer holidays in the ’70s were interrupted by a larger question. “Who knows if she even got proper oxygen support?”

Who knows if she, like many others, even had a fighting chance?

Questions such as these are plaguing families who are having to deposit their loved ones upon scarce hospital beds. Earlier, one would look to hospitals as centres of support; as places of problem-solving. In 2021, hospitals have come to stand as a symbol of the crumbling healthcare “non-system”.

On April 22, 25 of the “sickest” COVID-19 patients died of oxygen shortage in Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram hospital. Two days later, 24 died in Delhi’s  Jaipur Golden Hospital. SGI Tushar Mehta denied such claims in the Supreme Court, dubbing the average protester a “cry baby”.

Hospitals have shifted from being safe spaces to outsourcing their sense of accountability. Patients are being asked to arrange for their own oxygen, own medicines, and, unofficially, their own bed too.

Tanoy*, 23, who admitted his mother to Kolkata’s Remedy Hospital, was asked to arrange six vials of Remdesivir. This, on April 28 – three days after the West Bengal government announced Remdesivir guidelines which directs hospitals to procure the antiviral drug for their patients, barring sale to consumers.

However, protocols are but pieces of paper now and Tanoy was left to scour the black market.

Daama*, 24, in dire need of COVID-19 plasma for her grand-aunt, found most blood banks closed on Sunday. “In a raging pandemic, we must make sure to only be sick on business days,” she told me. “Even the doctor at R.N. Tagore Hospital, who is to administer the plasma, has not come because it’s Sunday.”

Hospitals have also developed the reputation of making patients sicker than they were before.

Soumen’s* father was admitted to Ruby General Hospital, Kolkata, for cancer radiation therapy. Only three days before he was to come home, he contracted COVID-19. While he is doing better now, not everybody has shared the same fate.

Roshni*, 23, who had admitted her aunt to Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Kolkata, said that the hospital had to evacuate several floors because poor isolation norms had led to contamination. Her aunt, who was admitted with heart problems, contracted the virus there, and passed away. Upon reaching out to Apollo, an official said, “Floors are vacated in hospitals of repute on a routine basis to implement infection control measures.”

Sometimes, families are being informed that the hospital can’t account for their patient’s whereabouts. Anupama Gahlout, 20 hours after admitting her father to Ambedkar Nagar Hospital, Delhi, was told that he was missing. An hour later, they handed over his dead body.

Healthcare workers, often considered complicit in the non-system, are also victims of a non-existent healthcare infrastructure.

Anindita*, a nurse at a reputed North Kolkata hospital, said she had been working around the clock for 14 days. On a rare evening off, she returned home to find her sister-in-law had suffered a miscarriage at home. “I was so busy tending to patients, they could not get through to me,” she said. “Maybe if I could have taken the call, the baby would be here.”

Doctors too are being denied beds. Dr Ashwini Sarode, despite her connections, could not get the best care or Remdesivir for her father, reports Times of India.

These professionals, often thought of as gods, are rarely treated as human. Journalist Rana Ayyub met a nurse at Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation Hospital, who was recovering from the virus herself. Ayyub writes for TIME magazine, “Her request for leave had been denied three times and she wished she could resign, but her family of six depends on her.”

Saandhra, an anesthesiology resident in Delhi, wrote of the nightmare she was “forced to watch”. “The last words of one of our patients before my friend intubated her was that she has an 11 and four year old at home, not to let her die (she died), telling children that they may not get their mother’s body…”

Yogita Limaye, reports for BBC News, Delhi, “With resources so short, they (healthcare workers) are having to choose who they might save – decisions they should never have had to make.”

Manjusha Mathew, a nurse, and mother of three young children, says, “At times we break down. Some nights, I wake up crying, but I also feel a sense of satisfaction that I’m doing something to help.”

To quote Arundhati Roy, “The system has not collapsed. The ‘system’ barely existed.”

It has never been more apparent than now. Families are looking to set up at-home ICUs for their kin, because, at least then they may have a semblance of control. With the government in air-conditioned rooms of denial, and cremation grounds at full capacity, one wonders who Indian healthcare is caring for.

*Names changed upon request

Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.

Featured image credit: Amit Dave/Reuters