Diamond Harbour/Kamarkati/Kolkata: Thirty-five-year-old Bholanath Maity has been camping in a tin shed outside Diamond Harbour District Hospital for over a week now. Maity’s wife and daughter are both inside the hospital. While his wife is convalescing slowly from Covid, his seven-day-old daughter is in ICU and having trouble breathing.
Maity is worried that if he leaves them at the hospital and returns home, he will not be able to get any updates on the condition of the two patients. His village in Patharpratima block is 67-70 kilometres away, a distance that he cannot travel daily. And he can’t give his wife a mobile phone, since the West Bengal state government disallowed use of mobile phones inside Covid wards in all government hospitals in April last year.
Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, who has since retired, had said in a press conference that mobile phones were one of the “most infectious” devices. “Go to any sophisticated hospital these days and they will say mobile phones carry more germs than even shoes. We cannot take that risk. We have arranged for landlines,” he had said.
But amid allegations that calls on landlines go unanswered and there is no way to get an update on patients without being physically present at hospitals, families of Covid patients admitted to government hospitals across the state, have been spending hours waiting outside, braving extreme summer conditions — Kolkata recorded a maximum temperature of 36 degrees Friday, while some of the districts are hotter — and the risk of contracting the infection themselves.
The Covid lockdown in the state, has also forced some to stay put at the hospital for news of their relatives, making it difficult to travel to the facility every day.
Even braving such harsh conditions, however, do not always ensure that they get updates on the health condition of their family members inside the hospital. At times, the relatives have to bribe the cleaning staff or attendants to bring them news of their patients.
The Diamond Harbour District Hospital doesn’t have any suitable place for families of patients to stay. So Maity has been spending the nights sleeping on a plastic sheet in the shed, with a brick as a pillow.
And he is not the only one, nor is this the only hospital where families of patients are facing a similar plight.
A camping place for families
Maity’s neighbour in the shed is Pradip Naskar, a 50-year-old resident of a village in Kulpi block, about 30 kilometres away from the hospital.
Naskar’s 22-year-old daughter-in-law is also suffering from breathlessness. Although he said she is not Covid positive, she has multiple other medical conditions and needed hospitalisation.
“All of us fear we will get Covid if we stay here in this congested shed. But we cannot leave our family and go home either. If we leave this place, we will lose touch, won’t be able to come back, as there is no transport available owing to the lockdown,” said Nashkar.
There are over two dozen others sharing the shed with Maity and Nashkar, whose relatives are being treated for Covid or post-Covid complications at the hospital. All forward the same reason for not leaving the hospital premises — fear of losing touch with their loved ones.
It’s a similar scene at government hospitals in the state capital.
Ataur Rahman, a 65-year-old man from Nandigram, 140 kilometres away from Kolkata, is camping at the city’s Shambhunath Pandit Hospital. Keeping him company is his 23-year-old daughter-in-law Shehzadi Khatun. Rahman’s son, a Covid patient who is also on dialysis, is admitted at the hospital.
“We have been here for almost 15 days. When it rains, we try to run inside the hospital. But it is not allowed owing to Covid restrictions,” he said.
There is another group of people — those who stay nearby and return home every night, but are back at the hospitals every morning and spend the day in front of the premises, awaiting news of their family members being treated inside.
Owing to Covid restrictions, no one is allowed inside the hospital’s waiting area. So they queue up in front of the Covid patients’ wing, for the doctors who come once a day with updates on patients. If they want more frequent information, they try to bribe the cleaning or attending staff.
The Print travelled to at least five government hospitals across the state’s South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts and Kolkata, where waiting families had the same problem to narrate — a faulty information disbursal system that didn’t allow them to enquire about patients from home.
Most of those ThePrint spoke to, seemed satisfied with the treatment being provided. The lack of communication was their only complaint.
Mobile phone ‘infectious’
The order disallowing mobile phones in Covid wards at government hospitals had come after a patient shot a video inside a government Covid hospital last year, revealing staff mismanagement inside the ward. The video had become viral.
The Print reached the state’s health secretary and director of health services over calls and text messages for their response to the situation, but there was no response till the time of publishing of this report.
A top official of the state’s health department, however, said, “Infection can spread through phones, that is why we banned use of phones in Covid wards. There are also chances of phones being damaged or stolen. We have set up call centres at every government hospital. Family members can call there and get updates.”
Doctors at some hospitals also make video calls to patients’ families, to allow them to see the patients and interact with them, he added.
“We also have a Covid patient management system [a web portal]. Family members can get updates on the patients’ conditions through that,” he said.
Family members claimed, however, that calls to the centres go unattended, while the patient management system often does not show any results.
Lila Ghosh (name changed), a government employee, whose elder sister is admitted at Sambhunath Pandit Hospital said that she did not get any update on her sister for over two days, when she didn’t come to the hospital.
“I tried everything, calling the hospital numbers and checking the system with a registered mobile number. Nothing worked,” she said. Even after she came down, she said she “kept sitting at the hospital from 10 am to late evening [without receiving any information of her sister]. Later, one of the cleaning staff told me that she had been put on oxygen support.”
There is no fixed time for in-person updates from doctors. Which is why even those who are not staying outside the premises, spend long hours waiting there.
Gopinath Adhikari, a 50-year-old man told ThePrint that he waits for at least six to seven hours in front of the Diamond Harbour hospital every day, to get an update on his mother, who is admitted there.
“I come around 10 am every day. Doctors can come down anytime. There is no fixed time for them to meet the families of patients. So we keep waiting here for hours,” he explained.
The fear of sudden deterioration in the patient’s condition also keeps many glued to the hospital premises.
“There are so many patients whose condition deteriorates, but the family does not know. We do not even know how they are treated or if they need anything. So we keep standing here for updates,” said Radharani Mitra, who was waiting to hear about her husband at Vidyasagar State General Hospital, in south Kolkata’s Behala.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)