Gorakhpur tragedy calls for debate on corruption, mismanagement, but also our apathy towards public health
No tragedy can be greater than the death of helpless infants. Many babies weren't even named by their parents, as they had to be rushed to the hospital just days after they were born. Lives were literally nipped in the bud.
True to form, after having missed the news initially, given the din of the evening war-fests on prime time television, the media descended on Gorakhpur like vultures. And a game of competitive hashtags began on social media, with anchors screaming murder and massacre.
Unsurprisingly, the authorities and government were accused of a cover-up. That the tragedy occurred in the chief minister's own constituency, from where he was elected a five-time MP, came as a serendipitous opportunity for critics of Yogi Adityanath, who were already voicing their concern over the BJP leader's comments on cows and Vande Mataram.
The incident certainly caught the government unaware. This writer tweeted at the state health minister, Siddharth Nath Singh, of whom people generally have a positive opinion. To his credit, the minister responded to the tweet, albeit it was a trifle defensive.
Adityanath, however, chose to remain silent, monitoring the situation from the capital, while allowing his minister to do the talking.
At such moments of crisis, governments can never do or say anything right. An otherwise seasoned and articulate speaker, having also been a long-time spokesperson of BJP, Siddharth Nath Singh made a PR blunder by denying the deaths were due to shortage of bottled oxygen, as indicated by initial reports.
He made a second cardinal error in stating encephalitis had been prevalent in the area for a long time and there is a history of casualties increasing this time of the year. Though statistically true, it was a politically naive and insensitive statement to make.
Public perception, as always, was quickly formed and social media was equally prompt in pronouncing the government guilty. Blame was squarely fixed on the chief minister by virtue of Gorakhpur being his parliamentary constituency.
Siddharth Nath Singh's resignation was demanded, and the example of his maternal grandfather, former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who stepped down as railway minister following a major train accident, was cited.
In situations like this, facts tend to get fuzzy. However, despite the government's assertion, the general belief is that the deaths could have been averted if there was no outage of bottled oxygen at the hospital. And the reason oxygen cylinders weren't available is because the vendor suspended their delivery following non-payment of bills. There are also allegations of corruption and malpractices leveled against the head of the medical college. So, heads are bound to roll.
Whatever the real story, a medical mishap of such humongous proportions, 70 years after Independence, is indefensible. Negligence cannot be condoned. But Gorakhpur is not the first such incident, and unless there is a deep dive to find and isolate the root cause, it won't be the last. Therefore, once the dust has settled, there is a crying need for some calm analysis of the systemic malady that plagues the nation.
Once one gets over the instant analysis of 24/7 live news, before moving on to the next subject, it may be useful to do some research. There are a wealth of reports and articles on the encephalitis menace in Gorakhpur (recommended reading is The Gorakhpur Mystery). These papers will show how Siddharth Nath Singh's comments about the annual scourge was not without basis, though it cannot be a justification either. One will read how Baba Raghav Das Medical College is the only hospital across 15 districts in eastern UP and bordering areas of Nepal (not just Gorakhpur, as some would like to believe) equipped to treat encephalitis.
The encephalitis menace has been Adityanath's pet cause for many years. It has featured in his election speeches. While I hold no brief for the chief minister, the same media did praise him a few months ago, when he revealed his plans of tackling encephalitis. It is also on record that Adityanath has visited the college several times since becoming chief minister, the latest being as recently as 9 August, just a day before the tragedy occurred, and reviewed the work on encephalitis in the region. That is more that can be said not just of any MP but also of many national leaders who have been holding on to their family constituencies for generations.
Talk about poor administration, appalling apathy and rampant corruption at government hospitals does not bear repetition. But even private hospitals are no churches, and hospital supplies vendors (even reputed ones) are no saints. More than that, it is a larger malaise afflicting public institutions and not restricted to the Gorakhpur BRD Medical College Hospital alone.
The point here is not to absolve either Adityanath or his government, but to underscore the magnitude of the problem. There is no magic bullet. In the midst of this, as the chief minister stated during his press conference on Sunday, apart from setting up an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) branch, the state has also requested the Centre for a National Institute of Virology in Gorakhpur. These are long-term solutions.
In the short term, the immediate need is to raise awareness and engage in constructive dialogue cutting across political and ideological lines. People's health cannot be a partisan agenda. Yet it is amazing how little of our national consciousness is invested in "quality of life" issues. We are happy to leave issues like infant mortality to NGOs and international bodies. The entire public discourse today is on merits of introducing alternate medicines. Initiatives such as 'Swachh Bharat', that can indeed reduce the incidence of vector-borne diseases, are met with cynicism by the privileged elite.
Seventy infants dying is indeed a heart-wrenching way of jolting the conscience of a nation. But if we really care, we owe it to those lost lives and their grieving parents, to shun useless debates on diets and songs; to instead raise our voices and participate on issues that affect the underprivileged.