Chandigarh: Punjab has a higher death rate due to Covid-19 than other states in India — it has hovered around the 10 per cent mark for a week now, and currently stands at seven deaths out of 79 confirmed cases.
And this has resulted in a return of political mudslinging, as the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has so far supported the efforts of Captain Amarinder Singh’s Congress government against the pandemic, has now alleged that the high death rate is due to lack of medical care being given to patients, lack of protective equipment for healthcare workers, and gross negligence.
The political allegations began following the death of Sikh spiritual singer Nirmal Singh Khalsa, a Padma Shri awardee, in Amritsar on 2 April. A day later, an audio recording of his last phone conversation with his son from his hospital bed went viral — Khalsa, the former hazoori raagi at the Golden Temple could be heard virtually begging for medicines, which he alleged were not being given.
The next day, his relatives, who were also brought to isolation wards at Amritsar’s Government Medical College and Hospital following his death, told TV channels that the hospital “didn’t even have a thermometer” to check their temperature. They also alleged that for almost 24 hours, not one staff member — doctor or nurse — had visited them for a check-up, and that no cleanliness was maintained where they were being kept. They did, however, admit that there was no shortage of food, which was being provided on time.
The hospital’s medical superintendent, Dr Raman Sharma, denied these allegations and told ThePrint that all possible care and facilities had been provided to the raagi and his family. He added that such reports only added to his staff’s stress, and lowered their morale.
SAD demands answers
Former deputy CM and SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal issued a statement on 4 April, saying although he did not want to criticise the government, he could “not keep quiet” after witnessing the “callous attitude towards the suffering of Bhai Khalsa as well as other Covid patients including one in Faridkot who was turned back from the hospital twice”.
“Woe betide if the cases increase substantially in the coming days. The government has proved it is woefully ill-prepared to deal with a large influx of Covid-19 cases. It must take corrective steps on a war footing and ensure that it does not fail other coronavirus patients as it failed Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa,” Badal added.
Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Sukhbir’s wife, tweeted the same day, asking Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to take stock of what was happening in Punjab.
After the tragic death of Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa ji, now 3 of his family members tested +ve of #COVID19 have complained that they are suffering from the same medical negligence in Amritsar govt hospital. I request @drharshvardhan ji to intervene & take stock of things in Punjab pic.twitter.com/zRjvCoKr57
— Harsimrat Kaur Badal (@HarsimratBadal_) April 4, 2020
Members of the coordination committee of paramedical health employees of Punjab had, on 3 April, staged a protest in Amritsar, demanding adequate gear to handle coronavirus patients. They alleged they were working under extreme mental stress and were not even given masks, which they had purchased on their own.
In a video message Monday, former revenue minister and senior Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia, also Harsimrat’s brother, said: “I do not blame the doctors or the nurses for not taking enough care, because they do not have the equipment to take care of these patients.”
Majithia went on to demand the resignation of Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu over the issue.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sidhu said there was no shortage of equipment anywhere, and that a lot of things that had been ordered were on their way. He added that Punjab had roped in volunteers to supplement any shortage of staff.
In a statement Monday evening, D.K. Tiwari, Punjab’s principal secretary, medical education & research, said the government has ensured an adequate supply of 2,500 PPE kits, 25,000 N95 masks and seven lakh triple-layer masks in the medical colleges of the state, along with buffer stocks of gloves, infrared thermometers, sanitisers, hypochlorite solution, anti-viral drugs, paracetamol and antibiotics, among other consumables.
Asked about Punjab’s death rate, which is higher than the 6 per cent registered in Maharashtra, the leader in Covid-19 cases in India, and Kerala, where the large NRI population has resulted in 320 cases but only two deaths, Sidhu explained this was due to comorbidities, or the presence of other ailments that compound the effects of Covid-19.
“All the deaths that have taken place in Punjab are of those patients who had severe comorbidities. Also, in most of these cases, patients had landed in our hospitals at a stage when they were already very sick. They had earlier gone to private hospitals where they were refused any assistance,” the state health minister said.
“Now, we have told private hospitals that in case they do not take such patients seriously, action will be initiated against them.”
Is death rate higher due to not giving prescribed drugs?
The Union health ministry has the recommended the use of a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for the treatment of Covid-19 patients, but there is confusion over whether Punjab is actually giving these medicines or not.
In a reply to a query on Twitter, the state disaster management head, senior IAS officer K.B.S. Sidhu, said that the combination was not being used in any government hospital in the state, leading to speculation about whether this was one of the causes behind Punjab’s higher death rate.
In Punjab we are doing no such thing, at least not in the Government hospitals.
— KBS Sidhu, IAS, Spl. Chief Secretary, Punjab. (@kbssidhu1961) April 3, 2020
However, doctors treating coronavirus patients say otherwise. Dr Sharma of Amritsar medical college said: “We are giving hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to patients. We are also giving it as prophylactic (preventive medicine). We don’t wait for the report of a suspected patient before putting put them on these drug.”