Shutting down SUM: Hobson’s choice

sandeep-sir-284x300By Sandeep Sahu

It is so easy to criticize the government. It can be blamed for anything and everything that goes wrong – from the rain gods playing truant to a bus falling off a bridge. That perhaps is the price of power. But there are times when one does wish not to be in the unenviable position that governments frequently find themselves in. The aftermath of the terrible fire tragedy at SUM hospital in Bhubaneswar that has already snuffed out 26 precious lives presents precisely such a situation.

A clamour for shutting down the hospital began as soon as the revelation emerged that it was running without the necessary fire safety clearance. SUM authorities were pilloried left, right and centre for ‘boasting’ that health care services at the hospital were back to normal within hours of the mishap and questions raised as to why the hospital had not been shut down so far.

Just imagine yourself in the position of the man – or the group of men (and women) – who has to take a call on the issue. Do you succumb to the clamour and shut down the hospital? If you do, what happens to the over 1, 000 patients who are under treatment in various wards of the hospital? You obviously can’t simply ask them to vacate the premises without making alternative arrangements to ensure that their treatment is not disrupted. So, where do you take them? Do other hospitals have the capacity to take them in and provide them proper health care? Even if they do, can the patients afford it? If they can’t, can the government foot their bills? If yes, for how long?

More importantly, do the new hospitals -whether government of private – have the necessary fire fighting systems in place? If not, then will it not be a case of throwing them from the proverbial frying pan to the fire’? Will it not mean putting the patients to the risk of the kind of fire that killed 25 and injured over a hundred at SUM?

The churning that followed the SUM disaster has thrown up the startling revelation that just four out of the over 1200 ‘clinical establishments’ in the state – 568 of them in Puri, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack alone – have fire safety clearance. In other words, all hospitals in the state barring these four will have to be shut down along with SUM. After all, fair play demands that you can’t single out and punish SUM for a crime that others are equally guilty of, can you? And remember, among these hospitals are the SCB Medical College hospital in Cuttack and the Capital Hospital in Bhubaneswar – two premier hospitals in the government sector in the state.

Also Read: Some lives are more precious than others

This brings us to the condition of government hospitals in the far flung, remote areas of the state. If the two premier hospitals in the state lack adequate fire safety arrangements, it is unthinkable that a hospital in say Mathili in Malkangiri would have them. So what do you do? Shut down those hospitals, drive out the patients and leave them to fend for themselves?

These are just some of the questions that the government must be grappling with at the moment. It’s a classic “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Sitting in the comfort of our homes, we can cry ourselves hoarse demanding the closure of all hospitals which don’t have fire safety measures in place. After all, it’s the government – and not us – who will have to take a call on a question that involves the life and death of thousands of people. But if the government, in its anxiety not to be seen to have succumbed to pressure tactics by the association of private hospitals or – worse still – being in collusion with them, decides to shut down all hospitals, the health care system in the state, such as it is, is bound to collapse.

I, for one, dread being in the shoes of the government. But I dare offer my two penny worth suggestion. Fix a reasonable deadline for all hospitals to put in place foolproof fire safety measures and close them if they fail to meet the deadline. Don’t succumb to the blackmail by private hospitals to relax the norms. But at the same time, don’t invite a health care disaster by shutting down all hospitals (well, almost all, because all but four of them have the fire safety norms) either!