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Gasping for Air

A pediatric intensive care unit in southeast India allowed dozens of children to die because the state-run hospital ran out of oxygen
By The News · 05 of September 2017 09:15:06
Baby incubator, No available, photo: Wikipedia

Last week, I wrote about the Indian government’s callous disregard for the rights and wellbeing of underage female rape victims (see “It’s a Girl,” which ran in this space on Aug. 30), in which I talked about the case of a 10-year-old rape victim in northern India who was forced to give birth against her will because an archaic legal system that forbids abortions after the 20th week of gestation unless the pregnancy physically endangers the mother.

The girl, who had been repeatedly abused by her uncle and did not even understand how she had become pregnant, gave birth to a female infant late last month, which her family decided to put up for adoption without her intervention in the matter.

That India has an appalling record of disparaging and digaurding female children is a sad but well-known fact.

As I pointed out in last week’s column, according to United Nations figures, prenatal sex selection and infanticide have accounted for the perinatal termination and deaths of more than half a million girls per year over the last 20 years.

But it is not just female children who are the victims of India’s harsh and contemptuous medical and legal systems, which, too often, is motivated more by financial interests than concern for its citizens.

The very same week that the 10-year-old rape victim gave birth to a daughter in northern India, a pediatric intensive care unit in the Uttar Pradesh city of Gorakhpur in southeast India, allowed dozens of children to die simply because the state-run hospital ran out of oxygen.

As parents of the children watched on, not understanding what was happening to their desperately ill offspring, nurses in the hospital’s intensive care unit matter-of-factly disconnected ventilators and handed out small hand-operated resuscitators for family members to operate as a makeshift substitute for oxygen.

Over the previous few weeks, the hospital’s liquid oxygen supplies had dwindling to dangerously low levels as a result of a failure to pay suppliers.

The hospital’s initial response to the deaths of the children was to shrug it off, saying that it was normal for 10 children to die daily in the intensive care unit.

The parents did not buy that excuse, and turned to the local newspapers to back up their claims that their children had died as a result of fiscal mismanagement and disregard for human life.

The India national media was quick to jump on the story of the children’s deaths, condemning the country’s corrupt public healthcare system for allowing its administrators to pocket money that should have gone to purchase the much-needed oxygen.

They pointed out that the hospital, which is under the auspices of the Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur and is considered to be the best in the region, had outstanding debts to the oxygen supplier company that exceeded $100,000.

India’s national healthcare program is rife with rampant corruption and malfeasance.

Public officials routinely demand that vendors give them commissions for contracts and in order to get payment.

In Uttar Pradesh alone, there have been reports of millions of dollars vanishing as a result of mismanaged public health funds, according to Indian media sources.

Just days before the nurses disconnected the children from their respirators, the local Gorakhpur Newsline website reported that the hospital’s oxygen supply was precariously low.

After word of the first children’s deaths came to light, the hospital’s administrative staff managed to come up with a partial payment to the oxygen supplier and began once again caring for some of the most severely ill patients.

But in many cases, their response was too little, too late.

In all, more than 60 children died from oxygen deprivation at the hospital in the space of just a few days.

Nearly all of these children could have been saved had the hospital administrators bothered to provide them with basic care instead of lining their own pockets with money allocated for oxygen.

Life is cheap in India, maintaining it, not so much.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.