For 47-year-old Mohd. Wakil from Shiv Vihar, Lok Nayak Hospital was the only lifeline for treatment. Acid was thrown at him during the Delhi pogrom in February by a violent and unruly mob. That led to his face being burnt and his hand and body sustained injuries too. He no longer has eyes as the acid melted the eyelids, closing them permanently.
From February end onwards, he was being treated at LN Hospital. Being a government hospital, he never got personalized care that his condition demanded. But he was being treated, nevertheless. The hospital would also give free medicines and that helped as he had lost most of his belongings in the orchestrated violence by Hindu mobs.
With the beginning of the abrupt lockdown on March 24, his treatment went out of gear. LN Hospital and GTB Hospital were announced as a dedicated COVID-19 facility in the capital. The announcement worried Wakil as he had no idea where he could go once the lockdown eased. He requires plastic surgery and doctors are yet to ascertain if he will be able to regain partial visibility in at least one of his eyes.
Government hospitals are where most of the poor people get their tertiary and quaternary care. These are the more advanced form of healthcare and include surgeries, such as neurosurgery, orthopaedic care, cardiac surgery, plastic surgery, and transplantation.
“To convert the whole hospital into a COVID-19 hospital meant that the poor who were denied care in these areas, could not access these hospitals. So, the poor would reach these hospitals in a critical condition as they would reach there much delayed,” said Dr Mathew Varghese, an orthopedic surgeon at St. Stephen's Hospital in New Delhi.
Wakil is not the only one facing these troubles. There are at least 100 patients from North-East Delhi whose treatments were ongoing at both LN Hospital and East-Delhi-based Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital. All of them have sustained burns, fractures, splintered bones, bullet injuries, and seizures in the aftermath of the February attack on mostly Muslims of North-East Delhi.
Shageer Khan’s condition is equally despairing. He was shot near his crotch and now he has a tube and a bag attached to him. The 20-year-old was being treated at GTB Hospital and now 80 days into the lockdown, the infection has been festering and he has been having trouble urinating.
“Of these 100 patients, there are 10-15 who need immediate hospital care. It has been extremely difficult to find new doctors and hospitals as they were not referred by their doctors. They were all in the middle of their treatment plan when the first shutdown was announced. The doctors did not feel the need to refer to these patients as they are mostly poor. Where are they expected to go?” asked Mohd. Gufran Alam, who works with Aman Biradari. He has been helping several of these patients affected by the riots get treated. Aman Biradari is a trust run by former bureaucrat Harsh Mander aiming to promote equal citizenship, justice, communal harmony, and peace.
The medical superintendent of Lok Nayak Hospital Dr Suresh Kumar refuted this allegation. “We have referred all our patients to GB Pant Hospital. They all can go there,” insisted Kumar. When he was asked if each patient was referred to specific doctors, he said he wouldn’t know the exact details.
“On paper the government left GB Pant hospital, but accessing it will be difficult because they turned the whole of Lok Nayak Hospital into a COVID-19 hospital,” added Varghese. Both LN Hospital and GB Pant are under Maulana Azad Medical College and are on the same campus.
Public health activists have been forced to raise funds to help patients get care in private/charitable hospitals. One of the few hospitals accessible to people is the Guru Nanak Hospital. Here, the patients begin to line up as early as 5 am, making it difficult for severely ill patients to access health care.
“The unplanned lockdown was completely unnecessary. For some time, even the AIIMS OPD was closed, so then where would patients go? The honourable PM likened it to war which would be defeated in three weeks. But, they should have realised that wouldn’t happen. Instead of it taking 3 months, there should have been a course correction by mid-April,” said a senior doctor in the city, who did not want to be identified.
When the lockdown eased Shageer went to GTB Hospital for follow-up treatment. “I was told that the hospital was going to be converted as a designated COVID-19 facility. I could no longer get treated there. I was told to go to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, but I wasn’t referred to any specific doctor. Even if we were to go to RML Hospital, they will make us run around and we were also worried about COVID-19,” underscored Shageer. He had lost both his parents before his teens and now lives with his father’s sister. Gufran helped them get an appointment at the Al Shifa Hospital in south-east Delhi’s Okhla area.
Wakil’s wife Mumtaz Begum echoes these concerns. “We were not referred to any hospital or doctor by LN Hospital. We took him to Guru Nanak Hospital. Here we do not get medicines and have to buy them from outside. It is not easy for us to do that. We lost everything in the pogrom; our shop and our house above it were set ablaze. Now, Allah has been helping us get through each day. We have to treat my husband and no government hospital nearby is open for us,” underscored Mumtaz Begum.
Shiv Vihar resident Nizamuddin hasn’t been able to find alternative doctors yet. Both his hands were broken in the violence in north-east Delhi. Rods were inserted in a surgery done at GTB Hospital. “He used to go regularly for follow-up treatment as there still was continual pain in his arm. But, once the lockdown began, he couldn’t and now GTB has become a COVID-19 hospital. The pain in his arm has exacerbated. He can’t fold his arm or twist it. It requires to follow up treatment. He also hasn’t been referred to any other doctor or hospital,” explained Gufran.
It is particularly distressing for 16-year-old Sameer, who is a resident of Chaman Park. He was hit on his chest by a bullet and he fell off from the roof injuring his spine. He is bedridden now and cannot move. “He underwent surgeries at GTB Hospital and even though three months have passed, he cannot move his limbs. He has to use a wheelchair. We have not been able to take him for follow-up treatment and now we heard that GTB has been converted into a COVID-19 hospital. We don’t know what we will do,” said his sister Shireen.
“The only hospitals that were accessible to the poor were made not accessible to them, It was a major mistake. There were several chronic injury patients, who were victims of riots in Delhi, paraplegics, young people with gun-shot wounds, young people with multiple injuries, who were getting specialty care in these government hospitals couldn’t go there for follow-ups. So, they have been forced to either stay at home or go to private hospitals. Some of them have come to me and I have taken care of them,” underscored Varghese.
The Delhi government could have avoided converting these large government hospitals into COVID-19 hospitals. “I hear now that they are converting 10,000-bed facilities in Delhi. They should have done this in the beginning and used healthcare workers prudently. Very limited knowledge is required for risk identification. They needed to train basic workers to triage these patients with mild symptoms in these large, high-volume facilities. It should have been outside hospitals instead of burdening and fatiguing the healthcare workers and finishing off our personal protective equipment there,” explained Varghese.
The surgeon who runs India’s last polio ward insists that the hospitals should have continued as before taking care of emergencies and specialties. “Areas that were not utilised for routine care could have been built up. When you have an epidemic or a pandemic, their numbers shoot up exponentially, but the other diseases will not shy away or hide. They will continue to exist, and we must plan for their care concurrently. It is not first this and then that,” highlighted the surgeon