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.

Rachna Dhingra, an activist with the Bhopal Group of Information and Action, a group that works with the survivors, told me that when the order to convert the BMHRC was issued, “Almost immediately, my phone started blowing up.” She said that panicked families called her and said that “patients were being forcibly discharged.” She added, “When I made phone calls, I realised that they were trying to discharge people on ventilator support as well. We decided to challenge this in court.” Dhingra told me, “Right to health, to being treated equally, and right to life are fairly closely linked for survivors of the gas tragedy.”

On 7 April, Dhingra and Munni Bi approached the Supreme Court asking for an intervention. According to the plea, the hospital had “forcibly discharged 86 patients.”  The plea challenged the state government’s orders, and stated that the hospital was in violation of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution—which guarantee the right to equality and the right to life, respectively. The Supreme Court asked the petitioners to approach the Jabalpur bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court instead. The case has not come up for hearing yet.

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

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