Some 30 chil­dren die af­ter oxy­gen to In­dian hos­pi­tal is cut in billing dis­pute

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­NIE GOWEN an­nie.gowen@wash­post.com

new delhi — One by one, the in­fants and chil­dren slipped away Thurs­day night, their par­ents watch­ing help­lessly as oxy­gen sup­plies at the gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tal ran dan­ger­ously low.

At least 30 chil­dren died Thurs­day and into Fri­day at a hos­pi­tal in the north­ern In­dian state of Ut­tar Pradesh af­ter its sup­ply of liq­uid oxy­gen was dis­rupted over an un­paid bill, of­fi­cials said. A Home Min­istry spokesman told the Press Trust of In­dia, cit­ing po­lice re­ports, that 21 of the deaths were di­rectly linked to a short­age of oxy­gen.

Wit­nesses de­scribed a chaotic scene be­tween 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. as med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers and rel­a­tives — the tanks run­ning dry — handed out man­ual re­sus­ci­ta­tor bags to fam­i­lies in a des­per­ate at­tempt to save the young pa­tients.

“We saw chil­dren dy­ing around us,” said the fa­ther of one vic­tim, who gave his name only as Vi­jay. “Ob­vi­ously, it’s the hos­pi­tal’s fault. So many chil­dren have died be­cause of them. My son was fine un­til night­time, then some­thing wrong hap­pened.”

Two more chil­dren died Sat­ur­day at the Baba Raghav Das Med­i­cal Col­lege hos­pi­tal in Go­rakh­pur, an im­pov­er­ished area in the eastern part of the state, as au­thor­i­ties scram­bled to firm up sup­ple­men­tary sup­plies and in­ves­ti­gate the tragedy. The gov­ern­ment sus­pended the med­i­cal col­lege prin­ci­pal Sat­ur­day.

The state’s health min­is­ter and hos­pi­tal of­fi­cials have de­nied charges that the deaths were caused by the oxy­gen bill dis­pute. An es­ti­mated 60 chil­dren have died at the hos­pi­tal since Aug. 7 from a va­ri­ety of causes, of­fi­cials said.

In a news con­fer­ence Sat­ur­day, the state’s chief min­is­ter, Yogi Adityanath, called the tragedy de­spi­ca­ble and said the state had set up a com­mit­tee to in­ves­ti­gate the role of the oxy­gen ven­dor.

“The guilty will not be spared,” Adityanath said.

Par­ents of the vic­tims de­scribed feel­ings of anger and be­wil­der­ment over the in­ci­dent, say­ing they were strug­gling with guilt over not be­ing able to save their chil­dren.

“The idea is dev­as­tat­ing — that she had to suf­fer while try­ing to breathe,” said Manger Ra­jb­har, the fa­ther of a 5-day-old girl who died in the chaos.

The deaths pro­voked wide­spread out­rage and con­dem­na­tion across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum and on so­cial me­dia, where a po­lit­i­cal car­toon spread that showed the ba­bies as lit­tle an­gels hov­er­ing in the sky as an In­dian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial tries to reach them.

“30 kids died in hos­pi­tal with­out oxy­gen. This is not a tragedy. It’s a mas­sacre,” In­dian No­bel Peace Prize win­ner Kailash Sat­yarthi, a child ad­vo­cate, said in a tweet. “Is this what 70 years of free­dom means for our chil­dren?” (The coun­try is set to cel­e­brate the 70th an­niver­sary of its in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain on Tues­day.)

The hos­pi­tal owed $89,750 to a Lucknow-based med­i­cal sup­ply com­pany called Pushpa Sales Pri­vate Lim­ited, doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post show, and the firm had writ­ten let­ters to the hos­pi­tal and district mag­is­trate for the past six months de­mand­ing pay­ment. The com­pany as­serted that the hos­pi­tal was vi­o­lat­ing the terms of its con­tract by run­ning a bal­ance of more than $15,625. The agree­ment ex­pired July 31, and Pushpa dis­con­tin­ued the oxy­gen sup­ply Aug. 4.

On Thurs­day, em­ploy­ees who han­dled the stor­age plant that pipes the oxy­gen wrote to the hos­pi­tal’s chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer to warn him that sup­plies were low and would last only un­til Thurs­day evening, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter ob­tained by the news chan­nel NDTV. The oxy­gen sup­ply then dipped to a crit­i­cal level, the chan­nel said.

State of­fi­cials claimed they had ob­tained suf­fi­cient backup sup­plies from nearby nurs­ing homes.

The hos­pi­tal is in Adityanath’s par­lia­men­tary con­stituency. The con­tro­ver­sial monk, who was tapped by the gov­ern­ing Bharatiya Janata Party to head Ut­tar Pradesh ear­lier this year, is the long­time head of a large tem­ple there.

Adityanath had vis­ited the hos­pi­tal this week to in­au­gu­rate a new crit­i­cal-care unit. Many of the young pa­tients were suf­fer­ing from en­cephali­tis, a po­ten­tially deadly ill­ness that causes acute swelling of the brain. The dis­ease is of­ten spread by mos­qui­toes, and in­fec­tions rise dur­ing the mon­soon sea­son.

Zahid Ali, the fa­ther of a 5-yearold girl suf­fer­ing from en­cephali­tis, said he and other fam­ily mem­bers were still in shock af­ter the death of his daugh­ter Khushi on Fri­day night.

Ali said Khushi, who was run­ning a high fever, had been ad­mit­ted to the hos­pi­tal’s en­cephali­tis ward Thurs­day. She was re­spond­ing to treat­ment while on oxy­gen, he said, but her con­di­tion de­te­ri­o­rated as the cylin­ders ran dry that night.

Hos­pi­tal staff gave the par­ents a man­ual re­sus­ci­ta­tor and asked them to pump it them­selves, he said, and he watched in hor­ror as his daugh­ter first be­came breath­less, then turned “stiff and cold.”

“At that time, I un­der­stood that my daugh­ter was gone, but doc­tors kept on telling me that she is still alive,” he said. She was pro­nounced dead sev­eral hours later.

Ar­ju­mand Bano in Go­rakh­pur and Farheen Fatima in New Delhi con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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