It takes a brave, or in most cases desperate, person to check into one of our public hospitals. As this newspaper recorded, the conditions in the most of them, even in the Capital, are hellish. But even by these abysmal standards, the death of two newborn babies when their incubators caught fire suggests criminal negligence on the part of the hospital authorities. On the same day, we learn that a top hospital, again in the Capital, is so short of supplies that hapless patients have to purchase even basics like cotton wool from outside. This suggests that many are not getting the timely treatment that could spell the difference between life and death. And despite high-voltage campaigns in the media and persistent complaints from patients, the Ministry of Health led by the indefatigable minister Anbumani Ramadoss and the authorities concerned seem quite blasé about the whole thing.
The recent incident involving the babies is quite clearly due to the lack of maintenance of sensitive equipment. A short circuit, which seems to have triggered the fire, could not have done such devastating damage had the equipment been adequately insulated and its systems designed to shut down when such aberrations take place. In all such grisly incidents, the instinctive reaction of the hospitals concerned does not seem to veer towards investigating the circumstances and taking corrective action. Instead, a pointless round of buck-passing begins in which the real problems are swept under the carpet. The appalling condition of public hospitals seems to the main reason why people are turning to private facilities even though the cost is prohibitively high. And this will only increase given that less than one per cent of GDP goes into public health. Yet, we are very proud of the fact that we have a thriving medical tourism industry that attracts foreigners due to its low cost and competent medical care. It’s another matter that the revenue from this goes into private hands and does nothing to bolster public health.
Mr Ramadoss cannot escape blame for the fact that he has not insisted on greater accountability from those who run the public health system. If this is the condition in hospitals in metros, we can well imagine the plight of those seeking to access health clinics in rural areas. As was expected, a committee has been set up to look into the babies’ deaths. But only the most optimistic among us will believe that its recommendations will be acted on. A bitter truth but one that we are forced to swallow.