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35 years after Bhopal gas tragedy, coronavirus kills 10 survivors who had comorbidities

Ten of 12 Covid-19 patients who died in Bhopal were people suffering from comorbidities on account of 1984 gas tragedy.

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Bhopal: Bhopal’s Ibrahimganj is not unknown to tragedy. Located just over 2 km from the now-abandoned Union Carbide facility, the area was among the most severely affected by the 1984 chemical leak that has killed thousands and left lakhs sick since that December night.

Naresh Khatik, a resident of Ibrahimganj, would have been around 16 at the time. On 6 April, Khatik, 52, became Bhopal’s first coronavirus casualty. By 26 April, the city’s Covid-19 toll stood at 12, of whom at least 10 had also been victims of the gas tragedy.

The leak of the poisonous methyl isocyanate from the pesticide plant in 1984 had reportedly left the 10 people suffering from medical conditions such as chronic pulmonary and cardiovascular ailments, the comorbidities that made them more vulnerable to Covid-19, which attacks the respiratory system.

However, families allege this wasn’t the only reason their loved ones died. Speaking to ThePrint, they also blamed lack of medical treatment for the deaths. According to them, the patients were turned away by many hospitals, including state-run facilities earmarked to cater to the victims of the 1984 tragedy, which deprived them of timely medical attention.

The state authorities say it’s difficult to ascertain if the patients died for want of medical care, and that they probably weren’t brought to hospitals on time. But the four families ThePrint spoke to narrated a different account, saying at least three of the patients had been diagnosed with Covid-19 after their death.

Also Read: Abdul Jabbar, Bhopal gas tragedy’s oldest activist, turned ailing survivors into warriors

The same story, over and over

The 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, which has been dubbed the world’s worst industrial disaster, not only claimed the lives of over 3,700 people (official estimates), mostly from the surrounding slum colonies, but left lakhs with long-term health effects.

The abandoned Union Carbide facility | Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint
The abandoned Union Carbide facility | Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint

According to data compiled by the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Center (BMHRC), a state-run hospital set up to cater to the victims of the tragedy, 50.4 per cent of those affected suffered from cardiovascular problems, 59.6 per cent from pulmonary or lung problems, and 15.6 per cent from diabetes.

In 1991, the Supreme Court directed Union Carbide, which owned the pesticide plant, to set up a 350-bed super-speciality facility — the BMHRC — specifically to treat the survivors free of cost. 

Along with the BMHRC, the patients were also eligible for free treatment at six other state-run “gas-relief” facilities, including Jawaharlal Nehru Gas Rahat Hospital, Kamla Nehru Gas Rahat Hospital and the Pulmonary Medicine Centre. 

However, when the Covid-19 crisis struck, the gas-tragedy survivors were left in a lurch. The outpatient departments (OPDs) of the gas-relief hospitals were shut. 

On 23 March, the Madhya Pradesh government decided to convert the BMHRC into a Covid-19 facility, a decision they rescinded on 15 April.

ThePrint spoke to four of the 10 families of the deceased, all of whom alleged difficulties in accessing prompt treatment, saying they were turned away by several hospitals. 

Naresh Khatik’s 20-year-old son said his father started feeling discomfort on the night of 2 April. “We tried to reach out to three hospitals…Everyone denied to take him,” he added, tears in his eyes. “It was only after we deposited Rs 15,000 at Narmada hospital (a private facility) that he was admitted.” 

A spokesperson at the Narmada hospital didn’t deny Khatik’s allegation, saying they didn’t know Naresh had Covid-19 and that’s why they “treated them like an ordinary patient”. According to Naresh’s family, his test results came back a week after his death, on 13 April.

Mohammed Ausaaf said his 55-year-old father Ashfaque Nadvi, a journalist, was turned away from Chirayu Hospital, a premier private facility identified as a Covid-19 centre by the state, right at the gates. 

“On the evening of 10th (April), his health became bad, he was breathing heavily. We took him to Chirayu hospital, where they looked at his file,” Ausaaf said. “My father was sitting outside in the car at the time. However, they told us they have been instructed that if an aged person comes, and if they have respiratory problems, they can’t admit them,” he added.

ThePrint made multiple attempts through phone calls and texts to verify the allegations with the hospital, but the authorities, including director Dr Ajay Goenka, remained unavailable for a comment.

According to Ausaaf, it was only the next morning that Nadvi received medical care, after he was admitted to the government-run Jai Prakash District Hospital. At the hospital, Ausaaf said, a doctor advised a Covid-19 test, for which they were told to visit a medical camp quite far away. “We went there but no one was to be found there,” he said.

Nadvi’s samples were finally collected at the hospital after he passed away on the night of 11 April, the family said. Two days later, the test came back positive.

A similar situation allegedly transpired with Aman Yadav, who claimed his 52-year-old father — Rajkumar Yadav — died after contracting Covid-19. Rajkumar, he added, suffered from a “host of pulmonary ailments and had earlier been treated for tuberculosis”. 

On 9 April, Yadav said, his respiratory problems escalated, after which the family began a wild goose chase for a hospital that would take him in. They were turned away by three facilities, Yadav added — a private hospital, the Pulmonary Medical Centre and the BMHRC.

“We then took him to Hamidia hospital (a government facility) where a doctor gave him medicines and told us to come the next day for an X-ray,” said Yadav. “The second day, when we went to get an X-ray, his blood pressure dropped,” added Yadav, saying Rajkumar passed away a short while later. 

Like Nadvi and Naresh, Rajkumar was found to be Covid-19 positive after his death. 

“If my father had been treated on time, maybe things could’ve been different,” Yadav said. “There are thousands like me who are worried about treatment. There are no clinics in the neighbourhoods, they are all closed.” 

Gulnaz, daughter-in-law of 72-year-old Riyazuddin, a Covid-19 patient who passed away on 17 April, said they were not turned away “outright” when they first approached LBS Hospital.

“Instead, he was prescribed medicines for the respiratory problems he had been facing and was referred to Hamidia hospital,” she added. “We took him to Hamidia where he was admitted at 10 am. He passed away at night. We were told that he had pneumonia and his lungs had stopped working.”

Also Read: Coronavirus has brought India’s almighty Centre back, and Modi’s unlikely to give up control

The vulnerable ones

The medical authorities in Bhopal were evasive when questions were raised about the gas tragedy victims’ access to treatment.

“It is difficult to ascertain whether these patients died because they weren’t given treatment,” Bhopal Chief Medical and Health Officer (CMHO) Prabhakar Tiwari said.

“As you know they suffer from comorbidities. Those who are casualties were already immuno-compromised… also, it’s possible that the families themselves couldn’t reach the hospital in time,” he told ThePrint.

Rachna Dhingra, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action that has been working with the victims of the gas tragedy said, “…Nothing has been done to protect, screen and identify the most vulnerable population.” 

“All the analysis shows that people have died due to lack of prompt care, all were gas victims, all suffered comorbidities that were easily identifiable because they were all registered in the system of the gas-relief hospitals and BMHRC with their details,” she said. “There has been no attempt in reaching out to the vulnerable and they have been left to die.” 

Families ‘in lurch’

The families claim their travails have continued in the days since they lost their loved ones. They allegedly didn’t receive the patients’ medical records, were made to wait multiple days for their own test results, and packed off to ill-equipped isolation facilities.

Gulnaz said they “weren’t given any reports” for her father-in-law. “We just managed to take a picture of a paper — it only mentioned that he was a suspected case. We have reached out to many people, including the collector and the additional district magistrate. But there hasn’t been a reply,” she added.

Six members of the family, she said, were tested 11 days ago, but only one of them has received the result — her brother-in-law, who has tested positive.

“We are really feeling hassled. People should be given a report whether they are positive or negative,” she said. 

Aman Yadav said 52 of his family members and neighbours were tested for Covid-19 on 13 April, adding many of them had submitted his phone number for the notification of results. 

On 21 April, he said, he received a message that read, “Your test result is negative, stay at home, stay safe.” “But… there was no name,” he said.

ThePrint made multiple calls to the CMHO and the collector for comments about these allegations but there was no response.

Rajkumar Yadav, Nadvi and Riyazuddin’s families and neighbours had initially been lodged at the All Saints’ Medical College of Engineering, which had been converted into an isolation facility, along with those of another Covid-19 patient. 

However, the “unsanitary conditions” on the premises and the lack of basic necessities, including water, compelled them to demand that they be shifted out. 

“There were no sanitisers, masks or gloves. People were going out normally. We were better off at home. There was no water either. Just a water tanker,” Yadav said. 

Ausaaf added, “It was really dirty, especially the toilets. There was no water.”

On 17 April, the authorities took cognisance of the complaints and shifted them out to hotels in the city. 

Also Read: ‘Low testing, no healthcare’ — residents of Ahmedabad’s hotspots cry for govt help


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