We can move overnight with lightning speed men and material to a flashpoint in eastern Ladakh; faced with the prospect of a long-drawn war in sub-zero temperatures, we come firing on all cylinders and construct within days makeshift shelters and provide the forces with high-altitude snow wear. But we can't show the same alacrity when rushing oxygen cylinders from one point to another.
Finally, Operation Oxygen has begun on a war footing; import orders have been placed, taxes waived, captive oxygen plants are being set up, industries roped in, red tape cut, gas tankers requisitioned, machinery airlifted…
So, what else does the government need to do? Plenty. To begin with, it should streamline the hospital admission process and counsel and comfort those left out. The reality though is that some hospitals have simply locked their gates, others have not even provided a sunshade. This is no way to treat the sick even if there are no beds for them. A small team led by a senior doctor and medical social workers must summarily assess every patient in the queue, explaining the situation to his/her relatives and giving them options to soothe their frayed nerves. Outrage management need not be restricted to social media.
Unfortunately, our hospitals have no culture of counselling and comforting patients and their relatives. It is lost on our medics that the healing touch starts with comforting words and gestures. Doctors or nurses can initiate the process and medical social workers can take over from there. Patience is the key to dealing with patients.
In fact, psychologists need to be redeployed outside hospitals along with the medical social workers to tackle the crowd. Of course, this is not to say that doctors have not risen above the situation; their heroic efforts and their innovative ways to lift the spirits of their patients is the stuff of many a viral video. Such healthcare workers must be felicitated. Our doctors, nurses and wardboys are overworked and desensitised to suffering. There is a dire need to ease the manpower crisis at hospitals. This is also why we need an interface between the doctor and the patient’s relatives.
To free up more beds, those who have recovered sufficiently should be moved out and not allowed to overstay. Also, those complaining of Covid symptoms but testing negative should be kept in a separate ward so that they do not get it from those who really have it. While there are not many complaints about food, the washrooms at many a jumbo Covid centre are tiny and suffer from poor drainage.
The government also needs to act tough with private hospitals, many of which have been given land at highly concessional rates. In this national emergency, there’s a fit case for converting them into Covid centres monitored by the government. That will at least stop them from fleecing the patients.
Then, there are ways to prevent the wastage of oxygen by replacing cannulas with masks and diluting the concentration of oxygen.
Relatives of the deceased need to be helped with the last rites. It is heart-rending to see them wait for hours in the open to cremate their loved ones. If the government failed to save their lives, it can at least ensure them some dignity in death.
A lot of the confusion and panic, which is adding to the crowd outside hospitals and the hoarding of oxygen cylinders, can be stopped by dissemination of proper news and health capsules through the official channels. The problem is that we have a gigantic machinery to spread disinformation but none to spread information. Where are the control rooms, the helplines? Where is the authentic information about self-diagnosis, managing oxygen levels, simple breathing exercises to strengthen the lungs, tips for those self-quarantined?
Why not use religious and social organisations to curb disinformation and panic and to spread common-sense solutions and popularise simple procedures? After all, workers of a political party were going door to door collecting funds for the temple at Ayodhya not very long ago.
After the oxygen crisis is over, the government needs to list all the mistakes – fire audits at hospitals included – and fix responsibility for it. Especially for the incident where trucks with oxygen cylinders stood outside the gate of a prominent Delhi hospital waiting for the all-pervasive no-objection certificate to pop up even as TV channels began a grisly countdown before the final descent for the patients in the ICU.
The Union health budget which is less than 1.5 per cent of the GDP also must be raised. Hospitals and clinics must have priority over gigantic statues, temples and grandiose projects such as the bullet train and the new Parliament building. Here, there’s a lesson to be learnt from oxygen-surplus Kerala which tops the nation’s human development index, having invested in primary health and education.
However, the Union, as well as state governments, will be able to think straight only if they stop the blame game and whataboutery. The war against Covid will be a long one.