The Government Medical College—a premier hospital that caters to the whole of the Jammu division of Jammu and Kashmir—has been in disarray for the last few months. The hospital, located in Jammu city, has had severe deficiencies in infrastructure and manpower shortages even as COVID-19 cases in the division, which comprises ten districts, surged in September. The situation at the GMC is a reflection of the UT administration’s lack of preparedness for the novel coronavirus pandemic.
According to official data, 35,246 people were infected and 457 people had died of COVID-19 in the Jammu division till 18 October. Of these, 26,710 cases and 394 deaths had occurred since the beginning of September. The region witnessed this sharp rise in infections after the UT’s lockdown was lifted in August and the surge left ill-equipped and understaffed government hospitals buckling under the patient load. For instance, many smaller hospitals have been unable to install ventilators. The GMC itself has had to deal with staff falling ill with the disease, doctors reluctant to treat COVID-19 patients, bureaucratic interference, inadequate oxygen storage and disruption in oxygen supply.
Fifty-five-year old Bindi Bhat died at the GMC in the early hours of 23 September. According to her brother-in-law Ramesh Bhat, centralised oxygen supply suddenly stopped working in the hospital’s emergency ward. He said that he saw COVID-19 patients in beds near Bindi’s collapse within minutes of each other. Her family members ran to find doctors that could help. “It took us ten minutes to wake up a nursing orderly,” Ramesh said. “There was no other medical staff member around.” He said that Bindi died even as she watched her oxygen levels plummet on an oximeter and pleaded for someone to save her.
The Bhat family, who live about twenty kilometres away from the hospital in Jagti township, had a hard time finding a hospital bed for Bindi. “We contacted Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, which is run by Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine board, but they cited non-availability of beds,” Ramesh said. “Other private hospitals couldn’t assure us that oxygen support would be provided on arrival as her oxygen level was extremely low. We brought her to the GMC on the evening of 22 September.” He said that although her oxygen level was very low at the time, between 35 and 40 millimetres of mercury, the GMC did not give her a bed or oxygen support till late that night. Normal blood-oxygen levels measure between 75 and 100 millimetres.
Sixteen people died that night across hospitals in the Jammu division. Besides the Bhats, other families also alleged that they lost members because of the oxygen disruption at the GMC. The GMC set up an inquiry committee and the report on the incident “leading” to the “death of a patient” found that the disruption was due to a failure of coordination between the hospital administration and the mechanical-engineering wing. “There has been mismanagement on part of the hospital administration and the officers at the helm of affairs, who have been dealing with the situation in a very casual and unprofessional manner, thereby putting the things in disarray and the available resources have not been put to optimal use,” the committee’s report said. Rajiv Rai Bhatnagar, an advisor to the lieutenant governor of the UT, suspended the deputy medical superintendent and the executive engineer in charge of the mechanical department on the grounds that they were accountable for the shortage in oxygen supply.