The last time when AES had hit Bihar, governments both in the State and the Centre had given multiple assurances of tackling the menace, but nothing came of it
There cannot be different yardsticks of accountability for different Chief Ministers. If Mamata Banerjee was responsible for the doctor’s stir in West Bengal because of her egotistical attitude and penchant to play politics even on issues of public health, then Nitish Kumar must be held answerable for the death of some 150 children in Bihar struck by Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), largely caused by administrative neglect over months. Amazingly, the Bihar Chief Minister, who is known to be an efficient administrator, remained silent as the death toll mounted and only visited the hospital in Muzaffarpur where the maximum deaths had happened after many lives were lost and public anger and media outrage had reached alarming proportions.
It is not as if the State government had been caught unawares. Encephalitis had been a killer more especially since the last decade. According to government figures, there had been 33 deaths among the 124 reported cases in 2018; 54 deaths out of 189 cases reported in 2017; 102 deaths in 324 cases in 2016; and 90 deaths among the 285 reports cases in 2015. The worst was in 2014 when 1358 cases were reported and 355 deaths recorded. The 2014 tragedy ought to have woken up not just the Bihar regime but also the Centre. This translates to 26.6 per cent deaths against the number of reported cases in 2018, and it stands out shockingly against a national average of just 5.5 deaths due to encephalitis.
If the government had been aware of the fact that acute heat conditions, coupled with malnourishment, allow AES to flourish among children, the obvious question is: What steps had it taken to meet the challenge when it came? It would seem that preciously little was done. The cause of AES had remained a mystery, and it remains so. What happened to the medical research that should have been done in the years gone by? The last time when AES had hit Bihar, governments both in the State and the Centre had given multiple assurances of tackling the menace, but nothing came of it. The most likely victims are children from economically poor families — as they have been this time — and thus these families would be hobbled by lack of awareness and nutritious diet. How is it that in Nitish Kumar Raj, millions of children remain not just undernourished but malnourished? Why had the state administration failed to conduct effective awareness campaigns among the vulnerable sections of the population?
Meanwhile, his government must at least now wake up and begin the task of cleaning up the healthcare system in the State. Money is not a problem, expertise is not an issue. Political will alone is required
According to experts, many of the deaths could have been prevented simply if the children had been brought to the hospital in time and given a glucose drip. That did not happen, and when it did, it was late enough. Equally worse, with the number of patients reporting to hospitals suddenly reaching high levels, the creaky health system of the state could not cope up. There was a shortage of beds — three children being treated in one bed; and, shortage of medicines — citizens told journalists that drugs were not available to the patients in the hospital, who were then forced to buy them from outside. Children who were admitted of AES aggravated due to the heat conditions ended up in hospital rooms that didn’t even an air cooler. There was waste all around, with walls and beds and linen in unhygienic conditions. In such compelling conditions, the valiant doctors did the best they could.
If all of this was not bad enough, the utter lack of sensitivity demonstrated by political leaders towards the tragedy rubbed salt into the wounds. while the Opposition has had a merry time playing politics at Nitish Kumar’s and the Centre’s cost — making fun of the former’s good governance model and the latter’s universal health care scheme — the rulers have behaved shockingly. One of their leaders lashed out at the “ignorance” of the victimised families, another said unripe lychee fruit was the villain of the piece, and a third accused the media of sensationalism. The death of 150 odd children in a matter of days is sensational. In one of the meetings called to discuss the tragedy, a Bihar BJP leader and state Health Minister was heard enquiring about the cricket score (there was an India-Pakistan match on). In another meeting (or was it a Press briefing), a Union Minister of State for Health, who hails from Bihar, was caught merrily napping. To top it all, when the Bihar Chief Minister was confronted by an irate media over the deaths, he snapped at one of the journalists, asking him to maintain his dignity.
It will be a while before Nitish Kumar can clean the taint of the death of innocent children. Meanwhile, his government must at least now wake up and begin the task of cleaning up the healthcare system in the State. Money is not a problem, expertise is not an issue. Political will alone is required.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.