The death of 10 infants in a fire mishap at a hospital in Maharashtra comes as a grim reminder about the pathetic disregard for safety of patients in government hospitals. The tragedy at the special unit of Bhandara General Hospital could have been avoided if the authorities had learnt lessons from similar accidents that had struck state-run hospitals in different parts of the country with alarming regularity in the recent times. This is the fourth such tragedy to strike in quick succession. Last August, eight Covid-19 patients lost their lives as a fire raged through a hospital in Ahmedabad, followed by similar deaths of 10 coronavirus positive persons at a makeshift healthcare facility of coronavirus. Then, five Covid patients perished in November in a Rajkot clinic. What comes out clearly from all these tragedies is the callous disregard for safety measures. As a result, blazes broke out in these buildings, asphyxiating many and crippling others with burns. The latest victims of this fatal failure, unfortunately, were newborns. It is shameful that no serious efforts were made to address the gaps and regulate the state of affairs. A familiar pattern of response follows every time such a heart-breaking tragedy occurs: a string of condolence messages from politicians, blame game, announcement of probes and a meagre compensation for the victims and then the business-as-usual as the tragedy is tossed out of the news cycle. With probes and trials proceeding at a snail’s pace, public attention fails to sustain. Public outrage erupts again when the next mishap occurs.
India has the dubious distinction of accounting for one in every five serious fire accidents of the world, as per the Global Disease Burden Study of 2017. Strict and swift action against those guilty of violating building safety protocols alone can bring down the toll of the tragic loss of precious lives. All the stakeholders — builders, hospital managements, civic and fire authorities, approvers and auditors — must share the culpability. There is a need for all the States and Union Territories to carry out regular inspection of hospitals and nursing homes to ensure strict compliance of the implementation of fire safety measures as stipulated in various Acts and codes, either by fire officers or third-party fire safety auditors. Health is a State subject, and the State governments have the primary responsibility of providing adequate health infrastructure and management of public healthcare systems. However, the Centre cannot wash its hands off its responsibility in ensuring compliance with safety standards. The deaths of infants, either in fire accidents or due to shortage of oxygen cylinders, should not become cold statistics in government records.
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