New Delhi: Dr Srinivas Rajkumar T., the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) whistle-blower who told the media that the N95 masks provided by the hospital for its medical staff don’t meet the safety standards set by the health ministry has been expelled from the Resident Doctors Association (RDA) and now faces disciplinary action from the hospital’s administration as well.
Dr Srinivas, who was general secretary of the RDA, received a show cause notice from the AIIMS registrar for his May 25 tweet in which he said there were quality issues with the N-95 masks made in Indian and that the statistic issued by the health ministry and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) were false. According to the notice, he must provide the AIIMS administration with a reply by June 3 or face punitive action.
For the past two weeks, Dr Srinivas has been providing information to the media on this issue via Twitter and WhatsApp. He was quoted in the press on May 29, when 50 more healthcare workers and other staff members at AIIMS tested positive for the novel coronavirus over a 48-hour period, bringing the number of cases at India’s premier healthcare research institute on that date to 195. Two members of the AIIMS staff also died due to COVID-19. On May 30, Dr Srinivas spoke to The Wire about the PPE via a video call.
Masking the masks
“Yes, I have been expelled from the RDA and this is the result of continuous pressure from the administration,” Dr Srinivas told The Wire on Monday. “I stand by what I said and everything I said is verifiable and based on facts. Every letter we wrote to the media raised important issues and we want a change in the condition of healthcare workers at AIIMS.”
He added, “Last Saturday (May 23) we [RDA] had a very heated meeting where I was questioned about my statements in the media and I spoke for 30 minutes about the quality of masks and other equipment. I asked them why we have not got a response from the administration even to the letters we sent months ago.”
He continued, “If this was their [the administration’s] way to address our query, we were not left with any option but to approach the media and put pressure on the administration. I am targeted because of my active participation in meetings, drafting letters and seeking responses. I didn’t dilute these issues…the number of cases in AIIMS is now above 200. Despite our statements in the media, the condition of the health workers has not at all improved.”
The Wire has been given access to screenshots of WhatsApp conversations between doctors and also the minutes of the meeting where Dr Srinivas was expelled from the RDA.
One WhatsApp conversation includes images of at least four doctors sharing photos of the masks they had been provided with and complaining about their quality. The photos show broken straps on the masks. One doctor wrote, “The straps given way. Evidence of me trying to staple it! Happened the first time I wore it (sic)!!”
Another doctor wrote, “Why is there the difference in the types of N95 masks between departments?”
In another screenshot, a doctor shared a photo of his mask with the straps stapled on and wrote, “Stapled.” Another doctor wrote: “Had to punch a hole and tie the strap and use it… this is a fresh mask… similar thing happened with another such mask on the 2nd image (sic).”
Image vs reality
The minutes of the meeting of the RDA’s executive committee on May 29 recorded the statements of at least 13 doctors, including Dr Srinivas. The meeting concluded with the removal of Dr Srinivas as general secretary.
In the minutes, one doctor was recorded as having said that Dr Srinivas should not have said anything against AIIMS in the media and, even if he had been threatened with legal action by the administration for talking to the media about the quality of the PPE, the issue should have been resolved on campus and amongst the resident doctors.
Another doctor claimed: “There is already an enquiry against Srinivas by a fellow resident for physical assault. This is not the first time that he is giving baseless statements against the administration without the confidence of the panel. PPE provided by AIIMs administration is of fine quality now. Things have improved a lot… We shouldn’t fight regarding PPE now, we have to fight together rather than fight among ourselves (sic).”
The majority of the doctors who attended this meeting said that Dr Srinivas should not have “maligned the image of AIIMS” in the media, at least without consulting other members of the executive committee.
But the decision to expel Dr Srinivas from the RDA was not unanimous. At least three doctors said he should be allowed to make a statement in his defence and issue an apology rather than be expelled.
One doctor in this meeting said: “Defaming AIIMS was wrong on the part of Dr Srinivas. Different varieties of PPE are supplied by AIIMS to different areas of the hospital. In some places, low quality PPE was given, especially in the emergency department, and no action was taken against it. The quality of the masks is also not up to level… (sic).”
In the minutes of the meeting, Dr Srinivas was reported as having said, “The statement given by me was right but the context was different. I was under the impression that [the administration] threatening me […] was known to all executives. I am ready to give a public apology and clarification regarding the statement given by me in the media and also personally to the whole resident fraternity. I am of the opinion that 2/3rd majority of executives should be there to expel any executive from the panel (sic).”
However, the president of the RDA, in the minutes of the meeting which was held on May 29 and released on June 1, said that Dr Srinivas should be expelled for his “irresponsible and undemocratic behaviour.”
He stated: “Despite the release of his expulsion notice dated 29.05.2020, he still gave a media statement as an office bearer of RDA, which is apparently an unauthorised and illegal act in court of law (sic).”
Criticism not allowed
On May 31, News18 published a report on the poor quality of masks and PPE kits, based on Dr Srinivas’s statement. The story was completely changed after 48 hours, and was replaced with a denial from the AIIMS administration, as Newslaundry pointed out. A tweet by a News18 reporter showing ‘low-grade N95 masks’ in use at AIIMS was shared by many opposition leaders, but has now been deleted.
The original headline, “’Not Worried About Virus But Govt Apathy’: Lack of PPEs Makes AIIMS Healthcare Staff Target for Covid” has been changed to, “AIIMS Dismisses Allegations Around Quality of PPE Kits and Masks, Says Specified Standards Being Met.”
This is not the first time that stories criticising the government have been removed by big media organisations.
In mid-May, it was reported that the New Indian Express, one of India’s major English language newspapers, had pulled down an article that was heavily critical of the Centre’s response to COVID-19. The article, entitled ‘Centre’s COVID-19 Communication Plan: hold back data, gag agencies and scientists,’ was published on the New Indian Express’s website at 7:09 pm on May 8 and disappeared within a day without an explanation.