Panaji: Forty-seven COVID-19 patients have died in the government-run Goa Medical College (GMC) due to “interrupted oxygen supply” in the past 48 hours, in what can only be described as criminal negligence on the part of the BJP government in Goa and the bureaucrats assigned to monitor the crisis.
Twenty-six lives were lost because of the oxygen shortfall in the early hours of Tuesday, May 11. Another 21 have died on Wednesday from inadequate oxygen supply, highly placed government sources told The Wire.
An internal note from the hospital to the government, accessed by The Wire, put the sobering picture in focus with this scathing assessment: “Causes of deaths at GMC—interrupted oxygen supply.” The hospital requires 1,200 cylinders a day, but had received only 400 on May 10, it said.
The hospital also noted the scores of calls it had made to both the oxygen supplier and the Chief Minister’s Office when oxygen levels began to drop in the early hours between 2 am and 6 am on Tuesday. This was when most of the oxygen-related deaths occurred.
Goa’s unending spiral of COVID-19 misery – 3,124 new cases and 75 deaths (the highest so far) were reported on Tuesday – is clearly being exacerbated by both a failure in leadership and bureaucratic complacency.
Power tussle between Sawant and Rane
The power tussle between chief minister Pramod Sawant and health minister Vishwajit Rane – currently at its fiercest in the worst stage of the pandemic – has only made matters worse, showing the government has neither a plan nor the leadership to bring the situation under control.
On April 21, Sawant appointed a three-member team of nodal officers to oversee the “management of COVID-19 in government hospitals”. This was apparently to counter Rane’s influence over the medical officials in the frontline. Drawn from a group of IAS officers, none with experience of local ground realities, the nodal group was put in charge of management of beds and drugs, oxygen supply and helpline in the government hospitals.
This reporter asked Swetika Sanchan, the officer in charge of “allocation and management of oxygen supply”, why she did not respond when social media was filled with distress messages and the Goa Association of Resident Doctors had long since red-flagged the oxygen crisis.
Sanchan said she hadn’t been to work for three days because she was self-isolating. “My daughter has tested positive, and her life matters to me,” she said.
What about the lives of those who died of oxygen shortage at GMC?
“This is an unprecedented situation,” Sanchan pleaded, highlighting the point that she is the junior-most officer in the government and her senior Kunal Jha, would be better placed to field questions. Jha did not respond to several calls and messages from The Wire, neither did health secretary Ravi Dhavan.
This might seem like petty quibbling in the current scenario, but it points to the level of indifference that has crept into a government run by a wishy-washy chief minister.
“The chief minister is now at the forefront of the COVID-19 fight. For the past two weeks, he’s been monitoring everything himself,” Sawant’s PRO Gauresh Kalangutkar said. As if to affirm this, shadowed by a photographer, Sawant turned up at GMC on Tuesday morning after the deaths due to oxygen shortage. “I’m probably the first chief minister in the country to visit a COVID-19 ward,” he boasted in a hospital where 48 people (including the 26 who died gasping for oxygen) had died hours before his visit.
Visited #COVID19 wards in GMC today to inquire about the well being of the patients, our medical team and also to understand the shortcomings in the facilities. Our Doctors and Healthcare workers are doing their best on the frontline. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/JX5VHxdyZ7
— Dr. Pramod Sawant (@DrPramodPSawant) May 11, 2021
“We have 100% oxygen. The problem is getting cylinders to the patients on time,” the Goa CM said, assuring worried relatives that “the problem will be resolved in a day” after his meeting with heads of departments on Tuesday.
21 more deaths on Wednesday
Twenty-one more people have died on Wednesday from oxygen disruptions since the chief minister’s public assurance.
“There should be a high court monitored inquiry to find out why so many are dying in GMC from interrupted supply of oxygen,” said Rane, who’s been completely sidelined by Sawant and his coterie, on Tuesday. The high court of Bombay at Goa is currently hearing a clutch of public interest petitions on the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.
Not Sawant alone, but Rane as well must bear the culpability for so many oxygen-related deaths in Goa, a leading physician said. “To allow the system to lapse to this level is not just criminal negligence, but downright criminal. Who’ll be held responsible for these deaths that could have been so easily prevented?” the physician asked.
A reporter who has been at ground zero, tracking every angle of the unfolding medical crisis over several weeks, said she felt enraged that politicians in Goa were using the tragedy to score points and that the bureaucracy had behaved so callously. Like this was just another day at the office. “They’ve all got blood on their hands,” she said.
Devika Sequeira is an independent journalist based in Goa.