Hyderabad: The Telangana government, which has recently come under fire for alleged underreporting of COVID-19, was directed by the high court on Thursday to collect blood samples of dead persons to verify if they had the viral infection.
A division bench of the high court, comprising Justices M.S. Ramachandra Rao and Kunuru Lakshman, gave this interim direction in a public interest litigation (PIL), asking the government to follow guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
“When a person dies in a hospital, the hospital authorities will certify the cause of death. But who will certify the cause of death when a person dies at home. It needs to be verified so that the deceased person’s family members and others who came in contact with such a person can live safely knowing that they have not been infected by COVID-19. As of now, conduct tests as per the ICMR guidelines”, the bench observed.
The PIL was filed by P.L. Vishweshwar Rao, a retired Osmania University professor, and A. Rajendra Babu, a retired principal of a government junior college.
The petitioners challenged a letter circulated by the Director of Medical Education to all superintendents of government hospitals to not collect blood samples from the dead bodies of COVID-19 patients, which The Wire had reported. Chikkudu Prabhakar, the counsel for the petitioners, said the PIL warned that the state in all likelihood may enter the community transmission stage if the government continued to resort to under testing and underreporting COVID-19 cases.
It may be recollected that recently, Doctors For Seva, a non-profit collective of private medical practitioners, had complained to the Inter-Ministerial Central Team on the Telangana government allegedly underplaying the incidence of the coronavirus pandemic.
The PIL presented the case of a woman from Mancheriyal district in the state to demonstrate the importance of its contentions. The woman, who had an acute respiratory disorder and lived near the Telangana-Maharastra border, was forced to travel 244 km to Hyderabad. She was admitted to the King Koti Hospital and died on April 14, when she was still under treatment, the petitioners said. Samples taken from her dead body showed had COVID-19. For this reason, samples must be collected from dead persons to test for COVID-19, the PIL said.
At the time, only the Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad was designated for the treatment of COVID-19 patients across the whole state, the petition said. Had the government designated other hospitals, either in district headquarters or in urban, semi-urban and rural areas, the woman’s life could have been saved, the petitioners contended.
One of the lowest testing rates
Data released by ICMR reveals that as of April 30, Telangana’s rate of testing has been much lower than states like Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. While Telangana has conducted only 282 testes per million population, one of the lowest in the country. Recently, the state witnessed a surge in COVID-19 cases and with 1,414 cases and 34 deaths by May 15. Health minister Etela Rajender in a media briefing attributed the spurt in the cases to migrant workers. He had earlier linked the spread of the virus in the state to the Tablighi Jamaat religious congregation and people returning from overseas.
The counsel for the petitioners argued that the government not notifying all 100-bedded district headquarters hospitals as designated COVID-19 treatment centres runs counter to the spirit of the provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and infringes upon the right to life of people in urban, semi-urban and rural areas across the state.
The high court sought to know from the government the strategies in place for COVID-19 testing. The government pleader (GP) for health informed the court that the state government had as on May 11 made available 5.68 lakh personal protection equipment (PPE) and 7.66 lakh N-95 masks to healthcare personnel drafted for handling the pandemic. He also denied reports of a shortage of PPEs. The GP further asserted that Telangana has registered one of the lowest death rates in the country, with 801 patients out of 1,275 recovering. This was attributed to the government’s “best treatment and disease management practices” in place.
Countering the GP’s version on the provision of PPE and face masks, the counsel for the petitioners said Telangana has been regarded as one of the poorest when it comes to healthcare infrastructure. He recalled massive protests by healthcare workers who were treating patients with coronavirus symptoms over the government’s alleged failure to provide protective equipment.
Even as the government defended its strategy in court, a tweet by the relative of a person who had died of COVID-19 picks holes in its arguments. Aditya Belde, a resident of Ziaguda, said his 51-year-old paternal uncle died of the viral infection at the Gandhi Hospital at around 10 am on last Sunday. “I want to know why his death has not been reported in the official bulletin which was released much later in the day. I think the officials had enough time to update the information,” he asked the government.
However, a report in The Hindu said government officials have informed Belde’s family that his uncle’s death was not recorded due to a ‘mapping issue’.