On 30 January, Shashi Soodan, the head of the microbiology department at the Government Medical College and Hospital Jammu, sent a letter to Sunanda Raina, the principal of college. Soodan requested Raina to arrange for purchasing various items to prepare for the outbreak of COVID-19. The items included 10,000 personal protective equipment. But the hospital did not have PPE tailored for treating COVID-19 till as late as 24 March, Raina said, even though patients with the virus started coming to the hospital on 4 March. Till then, its health workers were using the protective gear required for treating swine flu and HIV, with N95 masks, Raina said.
Raina and a senior official at GMC Jammu, who requested anonymity, told me that the J&K Medical Supplies Corporation Limited, or JKMSCL—a public-sector unit of the Jammu and Kashmir government—was responsible for purchasing and procuring PPE. According to the senior official, the administration had been requesting the corporation for PPE for two months. But the corporation has failed to meeting the hospital’s requirements, the official said, leaving its health workers in the lurch.
By mid-April, two doctors at the hospital had contracted COVID-19. One of them, a 40-year-old microbiologist, was a part of a team that collected samples to test for COVID-19 between 13 March and 19 March. His wife, a dental surgeon, has alleged that the hospital did not provide him with the required PPE. The other doctor who tested positive for the virus is a post-graduate student at GMC. On 8 April, he came in contact with a COVID-19 patient, while he was working in a ward that treated respiratory illnesses. He was wearing a surgical mask and gloves—which do not provide protection from the virus—according to a doctor who was present there.
Health workers at GMC and Sri Maharaja Gulab Singh—a hospital associated with GMC—as well as the microbiologist’s family, told me about the challenges they had faced in the last month. Several of them recounted instances that showed the administration’s lack of concern about their safety. Almost all of them requested anonymity and expressed fear of retribution from the administration. Raina denied that the administration was apathetic at any point of time. She accepted that they were struggling to procure PPE, but blamed the JKMSCL for this. Overall, the situation at GMC has been marked by helplessness, and even confusion.
The microbiologist’s family was distressed after he tested positive with COVID-19. He lives with his wife, elderly parents and a 15-year-old domestic worker. Three of his relatives spoke about what happened after he had tested positive for COVID-19. They said that the Jammu and Kashmir administration, the media and GMC were insensitive to the family.
The microbiologist began showing symptoms of COVID-19 a few days after 19 March. He soon tested for the virus and the hospital informed him that he had contracted the infection. On 30 March, officials from the government administration and GMC shifted the four of them to a guest house at Ambedkar Chowk. Two days later, they were all tested for the virus. By that evening, the microbiologist’s mother—who suffers from cardiac issues, diabetes and has just one kidney—was feeling unwell. The family had no medical assistance at the guest house. The microbiologist, who was admitted in the hospital, called his family and told them that his wife, father and the domestic help, had tested positive for COVID-19.
The family was distressed by then as it had little information about what would follow and if any assistance would be provided to the microbiologist’s ill mother. At night, a 31-year-old relative of the microbiologist visited the dental surgeon at the guest house. He stood a couple of metres away from her and recorded a video of her talking about the situation. “I don’t understand what is happening,” she said, while sobbing. “An ambulance has come outside asking three of us to come out and sit inside. No one is thinking that a lady for whom we’ve been raising hue and cry for days, she may die of heart attack,” she said, referring to her mother-in-law.
Her husband was admitted because of “hospital negligence, this is all happening because of that,” she said. “We’ve taken so many precautions … My husband is sick because the hospital did not give them PPE. If something happens to anyone, who would I ask for answers?” At around 11 pm, a team of officials from GMC and the administration came to the guest house and announced through a loudspeaker that the three who had been tested positive were to board the vehicle.
Meanwhile, the family was appalled by a report in the Daily Excelsior, a leading daily in Jammu, which created an impression that the doctor was not a part of the teams dealing with COVID-19 samples at GMC. On 31 March, the front-page report stated that Soodan, the microbiology’s department head, had denied that the 40-year-old was a part of the coronavirus testing team. Sanjeev Pargal, the reporter, wrote, “It is being ascertained whether the doctor caught virus within the Medical College or he had come in contact with any person of travel history especially those who have returned from pilgrimage from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Indonesia.” The report also quoted Soodan, who added that she had trifurcated her staff into three teams—collection, testing and infection control and all of them were working “to speed up testing process.”
A 27-year-old—one of the microbiologist’s relatives—was furious at Soodan’s statement and the insinuations made in the report. The relative said that the countries that were mentioned in the report showed that they were trying to link the microbiologist to the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim revivalist organisation. The Tablighi Jamaat had organised a conference in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area in March. The conference was criticised for ignoring principles of social distancing when cases of COVID-19 had started to emerge in the country. Sections of the media had taken this as an opportunity to give a communal colour to the virus.
Later, in a statement to another local daily, Early Times, Soodan said that the microbiologist “is a very dedicated doctor” and that he was, in fact, on duty. She reiterated the same to me, and said he must have been in the collection or infection control team. But she added, “Many healthcare professionals in India and all over the world have acquired infection. How can we know from where one contracts infection?” When I asked if she would be giving a clarification to the Daily Excelsior, she replied that her team was overworked. “How can I write responses to them, I am tied to so many other things at present.”
During the conversation, on 7 April, Soodan dismissed the idea that there was a shortage of PPE kits. “Well in advance we had the PPE kits in our stock for collection of samples and testing because we also test influenza, so we use PPEs,” she said. “But I can’t say anything what would happen in the days to come.” However, on 24 April, Raina, the principal of GMC, confirmed that procuring protective gear for COVID-19 was a struggle for the hospital.