MP converts Bhopal gas tragedy hospital to COVID facility; one dead as survivors left helpless

11 April 2020
A seven-year-old child being treated by a physiotherapist at a clinic run by an NGO that works with the survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The chemical leak of 1984 killed thousands on the night of the disaster but several thousand more have died over the years due to the long-term effects of exposure to the toxic gas. The survivors and their following generations have recorded higher instances of cancer and other related ailments, and many of those exposed to the gas have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children.
Saurabh Das/AP Photo
A seven-year-old child being treated by a physiotherapist at a clinic run by an NGO that works with the survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The chemical leak of 1984 killed thousands on the night of the disaster but several thousand more have died over the years due to the long-term effects of exposure to the toxic gas. The survivors and their following generations have recorded higher instances of cancer and other related ailments, and many of those exposed to the gas have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children.
Saurabh Das/AP Photo

A decision by the government of Madhya Pradesh to convert the state capital’s Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre into a COVID19-designated facility has had a devastating effect on one of India’s most vulnerable communities. The BMHRC is a 500-bed super-speciality hospital, which was set up to care exclusively for the first-, second- and third-generation survivors of a chemical disaster that is commonly known as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984. However, following a directive from the state’s public health and family welfare department on 23 March, the BMHRC stopped all health care for existing patients. All the patients were shunted out of the hospital, barring four, who could not be moved due to their critical condition—three were on ventilators and one was in the critical-care unit. One of these patients, a 68-year-old woman named Munni Bi, died on 9 April due to lack of medical care. 

Around midnight on 3 December 1984, over forty tons of methyl isocyanate, a toxic gas, leaked from a pesticide plant and caused mass poisoning in Bhopal. Thousands died in the immediate aftermath of the leak; thousands more have died in the years since, from the after-effects of the poisonous gas. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is still the world’s deadliest industrial disaster. Generations later, survivors of the leak continue to have increased rates of cancer and birth defects.

Over the last three weeks, Madhya Pradesh’s response to COVID-19 has shown that the state was utterly unprepared to deal with the pandemic. The state’s callous decision to shut the BMHRC is in line with this pattern. It has left the survivors without any avenues for health care even as, till date, not a single COVID-19 case—suspected or confirmed positive—has been treated at the BMHRC, according to activists. The survivors already suffer from a compromised immunity system, and most of them subsist in unhygienic living conditions—factors that puts them at a high risk to contract the novel coronavirus. In this scenario, Munni Bi’s story captures the limitless heartbreak that is being inflicted on the survivors.

Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter who works and lives in India. Her first book, Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History, was published in February 2022 by PublicAffairs.

Keywords: COVID-19 Bhopal gas tragedy Madhya Pradesh coronavirus lockdown
COMMENT