Staff says Delhi hospital allowed exposure to COVID-19, ignored workers who fell ill

23 June 2021
Staffers of Delhi’s Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute hospital, their families and residents of the hospital’s staff quarters said the management violated safety protocols that led to the virus spread.
Staffers of Delhi’s Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute hospital, their families and residents of the hospital’s staff quarters said the management violated safety protocols that led to the virus spread.

The management of Delhi’s Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute hospital did not assist or ensure timely treatment for employees who contracted COVID-19, according to staffers. The ministry of health funds the hospital and the University of Delhi maintains it. The VPCI caters to patients with chest diseases. It is not a designated COVID-19 hospital but tests COVID-19 samples. Patients with COVID-19 symptoms were admitted to the hospital, several of whom later tested positive, according to employees. Staffers—including contractual employees—their families and residents of the hospital’s staff quarters told me the management violated safety protocols that led to the virus spread. They told me that the hospital refused to provide ambulances, beds or assistance. Families of two of the four staffers who died from COVID-19 said they struggled to get compensated as well.

All employees spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the hospital. The hospital’s management did not respond to emailed queries about the allegations.

Staffers expressed that they were hurt because the hospital had put its employees at risk by treating COVID-19 patients—knowingly or unknowingly—but refused to help staff who might have contracted the disease from these patients. A contractual worker in his thirties, who often works in the hospital’s ICU, told me on 18 June, “Even now, we get only five N95 masks for 20 days. One big reason for infections is that we don’t get a change of masks regularly. They ask us to wash and reuse it.” He tested positive for the virus during the second wave. “I was in a private hospital for eight days and I did not receive any call from the hospital to check on me,” the contractual worker said.

A senior nurse at the VPCI said that there was a time lag of three or four days in shifting patients with COVID-19 symptoms to hospitals designated to treat them. She told me this increased the risk of infection among their direct contacts: the staff and other patients. “In the name of waiting for the results of RT-PCR tests, positive patients are kept in the emergency ward for up to four days,” the senior nurse told me. She said patients who may have COVID-19 were being nebulised in proximity with others, even though the virus “spreads through aerosols.”

According to the senior nurse, when COVID-positive staff approach the hospital for help, “they say that ‘we cannot admit you here since this is a non-COVID hospital.’ Why are they keeping positive patients here then? During the peak of the oxygen crisis, our staff died.” She told me she had a first-hand experience of this apathy when she contracted COVID-19 in April. The senior nurse said her condition was critical eight days later. “I was in a terrible state,” she recalled. “I needed a bed urgently.” She said the VPCI refused to admit her. “Since I did not get admission anywhere, I opted for teleconsultation with doctors from outside and underwent treatment at home,” the senior nurse said.

Five members of her family subsequently tested positive. The senior nurse said she resided in the VPCI’s staff quarters, which housed 10 families. According to her, the virus spread among other families as the management did not provide quarantine facilities to the staffers. “Seven out of 10 families who live here had COVID cases. And yet it was not declared as a containment zone, nor was it sanitised,” she told me.

A frontline worker in her forties told me about a patient who was admitted to the hospital in April. The frontline worker said that the patient tested positive during her stay at the VPCI, but there was a delay in shifting her to a COVID facility. She said this was a “VIP patient”—the frontline worker and the senior nurse both told me the patient had close connections to the management.

The frontline worker in her forties said she tested positive for COVID-19 on 10 April. A week later, her condition became critical, with symptoms of breathlessness. She said she arrived at VPCI for an X-ray and two blood tests. “They refused to do the tests because I was positive. They do it for positive patients but refuse the same for the staff,” the frontline worker told me. She said that when she protested, the VPCI staff agreed to conduct the X-ray and one of the two blood tests. “I did not understand why they would not do the other test as well,” she added. She said she eventually recovered after receiving treatment at the Hindu Rao Hospital in Delhi.

The frontline worker in her forties told me that in mid-April, Deepak Upreti, a ward attendant at the hospital, also contracted the virus. She said that the VPCI refused to admit him, reiterating that they do not cater to COVID-19 cases. “He was admitted to Lok Nayak Jai Prakash hospital after a lot of effort by a senior nurse here,” she said. “The boy was constantly calling us, requesting that he be brought to Patel Chest Institute. He said that he was not receiving adequate treatment at LNJP.” Upreti succumbed to COVID-19 at LNJP hospital on 3 May. “Till the time before the morning when he died, he was demanding to be shifted to Patel Chest Institute,” the frontline worker added. She said that the staffers have asked the administration to set up a ward for the staff at the hospital but to no avail.

Ramesh Taank, a 55-year-old lab assistant in the microbiology department, also died in similar circumstances two days later, according to the frontline worker in her forties and a resident of the VPCI’s staff quarters. “He was denied a bed in the hospital,” the frontline worker said. Taank lived in the staff quarters. A resident of the quarters, who also knew about the struggle to find him a bed, said that the VPCI did not provide an ambulance to him, telling the family that they only had one ambulance and that it had to be kept on standby for any incoming patients. The resident also spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions. According to the resident, Taank’s family arranged and paid for a vehicle themselves, and went to multiple hospitals looking for a COVID-19 oxygen bed. Though the family managed to get him admitted at the civil hospital in Haryana’s Panipat district after a five-day ordeal, it was too late. 

Even the staffers who died in the first wave faced similar apathy from the hospital, their family members told me. Akash, one of them, was a 29-year-old ward attendant, hired on a contract basis. He is survived by his wife, Nisha, and two children aged six and three. Nisha told me that during the pandemic, he was assigned the job of shifting patients who tested positive from the VPCI to COVID-19 facilities. “He was on night duty from 11 pm to 3 am, taking patients from one place to another,” Nisha told me. Recounting what her husband had told her, she said, “He was not allowed a break to eat. When he returned to the hospital after dropping off COVID patients, he was told to clean up the COVID beds. He tried to resist, saying that he has two small children at home. But the madam insisted, ‘If you don’t do it, who will?’” Nisha did not know who the madam was.

Nisha said Akash was also assigned daytime shifts in June 2020 and he could not afford to go on leave. “His monthly salary was Rs 12,500,” she said. “Some of that went into repayment of a loan. He could not afford to apply for leave as a day off meant losing Rs 500.” Nisha said Akash started showing symptoms on 11 June and took some medicines on the advice of a nurse at the hospital. His condition showed no signs of improvement in the following days. He went to the VPCI for an RT-PCR test on 17 June. “Despite being a person who has a job there, he was not even offered a chair while waiting,” Nisha said. “He was in a weak state. He was so tired that he returned home without getting tested.” He got tested at the VPCI the next day and was found to be infected with COVID-19. He was admitted to VPCI and then referred to Safdarjung hospital the next day, where he died on 20 June.

Nisha’s struggles escalated then. She and her three-year-old daughter also contracted COVID-19. “The hospital authorities should have at least had the thought that if Akash has COVID, his family also must have been affected,” she said. “There was not even a phone call to check on us. I was torn between crying for my husband and looking after my children.” Nisha sounded distraught during our call as she shared her concerns about the future of her children. Akash was employed on a contractual basis through an agency named Pawan Security Private Limited. “It has been a year and they have still not released the provident fund,” Nisha told me. “The PF documents were submitted at their Dwarka office a long time ago.” Ajay, an employee at the agency, told me that the request is being processed, but did not have more details.

The VPCI has been of little help after Akash’s death too, Nisha told me. She said she had visited the hospital several times in hopes of securing a job to support her family. “I have waited there for two–three hours with my children. I go to the third floor to meet Narang sir, but he refuses to have a conversation with me,” she told me. RC Narang is a consultant at the VPCI. “I have cried in front of him asking for a job,” she said, adding that she submitted her resume to the hospital but has not heard back. Nisha said she also tried to speak with PR Santhanam, the joint registrar, who refused to meet her. “My husband fulfilled every responsibility, working day and night,” she said. “Don’t they have any responsibility towards us? Even my tears have not moved them to do something.”

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19