When Doctors Turn into Profiteers: Cribs in West Bengal Bleed Death

Posted on April 6, 2012 in Society

By Anannya Roy Chowdhury:

Today, almost two months after the fateful incidence of infant deaths, the silent corridors of the Malda District hospital, the purposeful chaos in the B.C Roy Memorial Children’s Hospital and many other regional health care centers and hospitals across West Bengal silently scream of a dreaded, blood stained past. The death of the numerous new-born babies, although seeming to be a long lost event amidst the chain of media happenings across the nation, still has the victims waiting for justice with their distressed limbs stretched, parched mouths gaping and lifeless orbs shedding tears.

A quick review on what has been happening in the City of Joy and its adjoining districts that is enough to put even Hippocrates on a pyre of shame:

Over the last one year or maybe a little less than a year, there have been an increasing number of infant deaths in several reputed government hospitals in West Bengal, the Malda District Hospital, Burdwan Medical College and Hospital, Beharampore Government Hospital and the state’s biggest and only child referral hospital, B.C. Roy Memorial Children’s Hospital, to name a few.

The very first incidences happened in the month of June, in the famed B.C. Roy Memorial Children’s hospital, with the sudden and totally unexplained death of over 22 infants in just a spread of 48 hours. The aftermath of the first blow had not even subsided when similar instances started occurring in over half a dozen government Hospitals across West Bengal. Below are the precise dates and the number of children who lost their lives even before they knew they were alive!

  • June 2011: This alleged death toll, started from the BC Roy hospital in Kolkata with the death of 22.
  • October 17-28, 2011: The Burdwan Medical College and Hospital (BMCH) reported 12 infant deaths.
  • October 25-28, 2011: Once again, the B. C Roy Memorial Children’s hospital catches up with the other contenders in this death run when 17 infants heave their last breath here.
  • October 29-31, 2011: Similar cases of negligence and resultant deaths of children were reported from the Murshidabad and Beharampore districts when 26 and 16 children, respectively died there.
  • January 19, 2012: The Malda district hospital comes to the infamous limelight when 15 infants die in just three days. The total number of deaths only in the months of November 2011, December and January 2012 sums up to 22 officially, although the actual figures might be substantially high.

The infant mortality rate in the state showed promising improvement over the two years before the last, only to have slumped defenselessly by the alarming rise in the number of deaths last year. At present, there have been more than 100 deaths in a matter of months and it is the two government hospitals in Malda, the District Hospital and the Suri Sardar Hospital that bag the trophy with a whooping number of 60 deaths in just over two months!

The Blame Game

The fact that so many innocent babies lost their precious lives for a mistake that they never did, seemed to be a “normal” thing for the who’s-who of the political scenario. The ministry, led by Mamata Banerjee, who ironically held a health portfolio, completely shook off all allegations on lame grounds. On being questioned by the media, she snappishly responded, “Do not irritate me”.

Not just the head of the ministerial body but also the heads of all the above-mentioned battlegrounds for the child massacres had just one comment to make. They said in unison that the cases of child deaths were nothing “abnormal” and that out of the 400 children being admitted each day, a death toll of 7 or 8 “does not stir a panic situation”!

That did not end the dire situation, it instead marked the beginning of the long drawn game of passing the parcel that the hospital authorities, the Leading party and the Ministerial Opposition, played at the cost of the emotions of the poor family members of the deceased.

Different institutional heads, the jest of which I shall present below, put a number of reasons forward:

  • Mr. Mrinal Kanti Chattopadhyay, who heads the BC Roy Memorial hospital commented that it was not because of the negligence of the hospital staff, but the highly “critical condition of the babies when they are admitted”, that had caused the ominous deaths. Later in a press conference addressing the unexplained deaths, he added blatantly, “At least half the babies admitted to our hospital are referred by district hospitals when little can be done to save them,” … then the blame spear pointed towards the obsolete machinery in the hospitals and the insufficient number of beds and the other needful.
  • In a similar thread of events in BMCH, the DM, Mr. Meena allegedly blamed the lack of infrastructure and severe illnesses such as jaundice, septicaemia or acute encephalitis and more than anything, the underweight of the neonates as the main cause. It was later a shock for the nation when he disclosed that on the 25th and 26th October, 2011 the hospital which had 60 beds in the paediatric ward accommodated over 151 babies!
  • Next up in the list of the concerned authorities, who presented her ‘plea for innocence’ in an impeccable manner, was the Chief Minister herself. Famous for her overtly baiting responses, how could she not safeguard her interests in her old familiar ways? Upon being questioned by media and other higher officials in the political scenario, she remarked, “This is an attempt to tarnish me and my government’s image. The babies are dying not because of us, but because they are underweight.” In her cutting tone, the Honourable C.M of the state mentioned in more than one press meets that for children below the weight of 2.5 Kgs, it was almost impossible to hail them to safety!
  • Another set of allegations was blatantly made against the family members of the patients by the lower hospitals and against the lower hospitals by the referral hospital! All of them remarked that it was the critical condition of the patients and the lack of awareness among the people that left them with no other option than to see those innocent souls wither away in pain!

In this regard, following are a few testimonials that would melt even the toughest heart: “I know I will have to sacrifice yet another baby when I bring my pregnant wife again to this hospital,” whimpered Jainul Ansari, a condemned father who helplessly handed over five of his neonates to the monstrous hospital in Malda.

The story continues in the form of ceaseless wails of the 17 year-old mother, Satera Bibi, a resident of Malda’s Ratua village. January 20, 2012 proved to be her doomsday as she lost her baby. What followed enraged the local people transforming the submissive villagers into Medusa herself! Satera Bibi was not only asked to leave scornfully, but also battered emotionally on flimsy grounds by the hospital staff.

In the wake of the current distress, the blame game took on a very nasty form when the earlier expected feeling was altogether not shown even in the least by the revered Didi! Although she held a health portfolio and like many other promises, mouthed big words for the development of the healthcare sector across the state — how much it has been is done is a million dollar question today. Forget alone the list of advancements that the government promised, Mamata didi even turned a deaf ear to the problem at hand!

What bothered the common people most was the fact that instead of rendering her support and summoning her so-called “motherly” duties, Ms. Banerjee preferred taking charge of the AMRI scandal, sending her out and about best effort to arrest the guilty in the aforementioned case.

The twist in the tale comes when we roll back time and go back to when West Bengal was still under the Congress rule. It is apparently true that Dr. Mani Chetri, the Managing director of the AMRI group of hospitals, was a one-time family physician of the late Mr. Jyoti Basu, the ardent Marxist and the former Chief Minister of the state. This gurgled up a lot of media attention and acquisitions on concrete emotional and political grounds were made against the present CM.

The direct revelation of the above mentioned fact is something that even a tiny tot would be able to comprehend today. In a situation when the leaders were expected to at least stand by the victims of the unfortunate events, if not actually work to improve their plight, they preferred moderating their priorities and thought from the stupors of their mind!

Parallel to these unfortunate events were another set of developments that in the best manner possible were obscured from public viewing. Time and again, the accused remarked the lack of necessary infrastructure as the main cause of their nakedness, which should have been an unlikely event, keeping in mind the fact that elaborate steps were being taken by the UNICEF and other commissioning bodies like National Rural Health Mission (NHRM) to improve the healthcare scenario in the state. In a report, Lori Calvo, the top dog of UNICEF activities in West Bengal said, “There is a lack of access to the services, especially of the children belonging to the urban poor families”. Huge amounts of money have been sanctioned for the construction and development of Sick Neonatal Care Units (SCNUs). Out of the targeted 26 SCNUs, only 8 have been operational and there is a clear slack in the number of child specialists and helpers in these units. When the plan entails the use of superior technology like radiant warmer, phototherapy unit, pulse oxymeter and infusion pump, it is indeed a slap on our faces that neonates, probably just a few hours old die because some out-of—their-minds government slave washed them with carbolic acid instead of Dettol, as was the shocking case in Lalbag sub-divisional Government Hospital in Murshidabad!

The evidences of prolonged lethargy can be seen in everything, be it recruiting staff (when the states needs over 400 paediatricians, it has only 25), training, sufficient involvement of Her Majesty, Mamata Banerjee and of course, the social structure. In the reported Malda deaths, 90% of the mothers were below the marriageable age which also questions the functionality of many other pillars of the otherwise hollow legal system in the country.

After knowing what caused it, who suffered, who were accused and how things ended up, there is one thing that reaffirms its credibility, that Justice delayed is justice denied, and who other than Sathera Bibi and the hundreds of other mothers who lost the battle of life would know this better? With the pamphlets blazing the famous slogan of “Maa…Maati…Maanush” in the very same place as occupied by the famished relatives of those 100 plus dead infants, it brings into light a very important aspect of life today. It not just pains me to research on the topic, turn through the several dark pages containing the details of the cases but it certainly brings a shame, fanned by endless bouts of rueful thinking and uncertainness about the future of my beloved state.