The most telling picture of Friday’s fire in a Kolkata hospital is not burnt bodies, patients being rescued with rope ladders, relatives crying. It is this: Hospital staff dragging an oxygen cylinder. This looks like a scene from some isolated township not a big city, and most certainly not a private hospital.
89 people died when a fire broke out in the basement of the Advanced Medicare & Research Institute (AMRI) hospital in Dhakuria. Most of the patients were in the intensive care units. I cannot even imagine those who are too ill and fragile in a position to even save themselves. Did they try pulling out the drips, the pipes, the wires linking them to machines when the smoke reached them and there was panic? Or were they asleep, rather sedated, at 1.30 am and died strapped to their beds?
There were some who pressed their faces on the windows and seemed to shout for help. Combustible material was placed in the basement. The fire brigade took time to arrive, ambulances took time to arrive…it was the nearby slumdwellers who rushed to assist in the rescue operations, but the guard refused to open the gate.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee arrived later in the morning, holding a mike and a megaphone leading the way, to assure people, to convince them. I do not wish to be cynical here. She was there at the other hospital where the injured were shifted and stayed there until late evening, apparently without food. Not many people in her position would do so. While I do not like the idea of politicians and their entourage disrupting real work, there are times when such gestures help assuage those who are suffering loss. I only hope that this is not a political angle.
In some ways it has become one. The government holds 1.99 per cent stake in the hospital. What about the 98.01 per cent that is privately-owned?
I also do not understand why they are now talking about the slums as a hindrance to the movement of rescue vehicles. They arrived late. It was those living in the slums who were physically present, and for years ambulances have been reaching the hospital.
It is good that six people have been arrested, but it needs more. Many of our hospitals, and not just government ones, are run in the most careless manner. Doctors go on strike, nurses go on strike, machines do not function, and cleanliness is not top priority, however many bottles of sanitiser liquids you see. Only some months ago a woman was singed and her newborn died because instead of antiseptic acid was used to clean them up. In another instance, stray dogs were roaming near the canteen and ICU areas of a municipal hospital. I have seen such dogs even in the premises of a private hospital.
What is the use then of thick glass panes that even firemen cannot break easily, as happened at AMRI?