Nothing really life-saving here

Updated: Jan 12, 2019, 05:41 IST | Lindsay Pereira

The state of our hospitals should have shocked us into action decades ago. Sadly, even avoidable deaths make no difference

Nothing really life-saving here
On Jan 1, mid-day reported how a heart patient at Sion hospital went to pee in the night and lost his bed. At this hospital, patients are either two or three to a bed or have to sleep on the floor

Lindsay PereiraI had the misfortune of visiting a public hospital a little over two years ago, because the specialist I was referred to happened to spend his weekdays there. The name of the hospital doesn't matter, because it's not as if we can tell one from the other, given the level of indifference they all aspire to. There's no point discussing the exterior or interiors either, because the paan stains, peeling paint and filthy corners were all the same.

Customer service was non-existent, as were any signs that the staff genuinely cared about patients they were being paid to care for. What did bother me was the information that I wouldn't be able to get a follow-up visit with the doctor the next day, because the hospital was shutting down for a festival. It was that bizarre statement that jumped to my mind when news of a fire at the Employees' State Insurance Corporation Kamgar Hospital in Andheri broke a few weeks ago.

The fact that people died didn't occupy my mind as much as it ought to have, probably because we are now so inured to tragedy that even death fails to shock us. It's safe to assume that few among us will remember the number of people who lost their lives, because the regularity with which our fellow citizens succumb to government apathy continues to fill this newspaper's pages. And yet, I can't seem to forget that comment about a holiday because it stands for so much that is wrong about public healthcare. I understand that ours is a poor country, where governments trying to provide better services must fall short of requisite funds almost daily. It's when I see vast sums diverted to pointless displays of vanity that I begin to doubt the talk of poverty though.

How can a state that has thousands of crores set aside for a statue, or countless other monuments erected every other year, not have smaller funds on hand to ensure that its residents don't die on its watch? If Bombay, the country's financial capital, can't bother with basic safety, how cheap must life be outside our city's overflowing borders? There is a push towards private healthcare every other year, not because our governments want all Indians to enjoy better access to health services, but because they want to absolve themselves of all responsibility towards the poorest among us. It's why our public hospitals are run like circuses, with patients spilling out onto streets in the hope of a compassionate doctor to attend to them. It's a miracle that lives are saved at all, given the shortage of trained professionals and equipment these institutions have to manage with. None of the questions that should have been asked have been: Was the hospital evaluated for fire safety?

When was it last examined? When were the safety mechanisms tested? Was there ever a fire drill conducted? Were the emergency exits clear and easily accessible? Given that a second fire broke out, did the first one teach hospital authorities nothing? It's simplistic to argue that funds allocated for one thing should be diverted to something else, except that the something else happens to be human lives. It's sad that none of the people responsible for the tragedy that took those lives will ever be pulled up, that inquiries and committees constituted to get to the root of this incident will either come up with a fall guy or an unsubstantiated report that points no fingers. It's telling that a second fire broke out on the premises a week after the first, but didn't shake us from our collective stupor either. There are things we can do, but don't. We walk past these hospitals regularly, sometimes admit ourselves or relatives, sometimes visit patients there, but never take the time or effort to draw attention to things going wrong.

There are bribes paid to ward boys, corners cut on everything from first aid kits to linen, poor attention to hygiene in environments where this can mean the difference between life and death. Our inability or refusal to acknowledge these basic issues simply emboldens our governments to ignore them and encourages them to issue statements about how we want statues instead of better healthcare. Here's another fact that ought to shock us all, but won't. India reportedly spends a little over one per cent of its GDP on public health, a figure that stands among the world's lowest. Don't bother trying to find out what we spend on defence.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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