At around 2 am on 2 April, 52-year-old Naresh Khatik complained of uneasiness and shortness of breath. His son, Gaurav, said he went to two nearby hospitals to seek treatment for his father, but the hospitals refused to admit him because they said they were not equipped to treat patients showing COVID-19 symptoms. Naresh was a survivor of the world’s worst industrial disaster—the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. Ordinarily, Gaurav would have taken his father to the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, a super-speciality hospital that was setup to exclusively cater to survivors of the gas tragedy and their dependents. But on 23 March, the state government had turned the hospital into a facility exclusively dedicated for care to COVID-19 patients.
Around one hour after he first complained of breathlessness, Naresh's family was forced to admit him at the Narmada Trauma Centre, an expensive hospital in a posh residential area. On the night of 5 April, Gaurav said he received a call informing him that his father had tested positive and would be shifted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Bhopal. A little later, the hospital administration invited him to a chamber and accused him of hiding information about his father from them. He said they then told him that his father’s condition was fast deteriorating. “It was around 11 pm. They told me they were unable to save my father,” Gaurav told me. Naresh died that night.
“When my father heard about the coronavirus and the lockdown to crush the spread of virus, he warned me saying gas victims are going to be on high risk, because most of us have breathing problem and are unable to do heavy jobs,” Gaurav said. Naresh Khatik suffered from a weak pulmonary system, and had contracted pneumonia in 2015. He was the first victim of the gas tragedy to die of COVID-19. By 15 April, five more victims of the gas tragedy—Jagannath Maithil, Rajkumar Yadav, Ashfaq Nadvi, Imran Khan and Yunus Khan—had contracted the novel coronavirus and died.
On 15 April, the state government rescinded its order converting the BMHRC into a COVID-19 designated facility. But the infection had already spread in the capital city. Within two weeks, eight more people died, all of them reportedly victims of the 1984 gas leak. According to Mohini Devi, the secretary of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sanghathan, another group that has been working with the gas-tragedy survivors for over three decades, told me that the delay in revoking the 23 March order had resulted in the death of the eight gas victims because they were denied proper treatment at BMHRC. “All those responsible for subjecting the gas victims to unnecessary harassment during the COVID-19 crisis should be taken to task and appropriate compensation should be paid to the gas victims who died due to this criminal neglect,” Devi said.
The deaths seemed to indicate an apathy on the part of the state government towards the gas-tragedy victims, or at least a complete failure to consider predictable consequences of closing the BMHRC’s doors to them. It also demonstrated the poor quality of public healthcare in the state, where patients were forced to choose between public hospitals that were inaccessible and private hospitals that were unaffordable. Most of all, it was a glimpse into the inefficient policies and measures that have marked the state’s poorly planned and ill-thought out response to the pandemic. As Naresh had warned, it showed that hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy were most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the state government was ill-equipped to protect them.