‘Nowhere to go’: Second wave brings bigger Covid challenge for Bhopal gas tragedy survivors

Nusrat Jahan sits with the ‘gas peedit’ card of her husband Anwar Ahmed, a gas tragedy survivor who died of Covid on 5 May. The couple’s children are also seen in the image | Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint

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Bhopal: Nusrat Jahan has her hands clasped to her chest. Cupped in her palms is her husband Anwar Ahmed’s ‘gas peedit’ card — a government-issued certificate for survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy that allowed Anwar to avail of all treatments for free at certain hospitals in Bhopal. The card was supposed to be a source of support for Anwar through all health crises, but the family says it failed them at the last minute.

The gas tragedy, which saw the lethal methyl isocyanate leak from a Union Carbide fertiliser plant on a cold December night, left Anwar battling respiratory issues. Earlier this month, he contracted Covid-19 and died within days, allegedly turned away by the primary medical facility for gas tragedy survivors — the Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre (BMHRC).

Nusrat Jahan told ThePrint that Anwar got sick on 2 May. He began sweating profusely and clutched the left side of his chest — seemingly having a heart attack. Over the next three days — until 5 May, when he died — Ahmed’s family shifted him in and out of three hospitals.

The family first took Anwar to J.P. Hospital, a private facility, where they were asked to take him to state-run Hamidia Hospital, one of Bhopal’s biggest Covid facilities. A chest CT scan at the facility revealed he was infected with Covid. Since the BMHRC is the designated facility for gas tragedy survivors, the family eventually took Anwar there.

“They kept him there for a few hours where he was given an injection. But after that, they refused to admit him and just asked us to leave,” she said. They then took Anwar back to Hamidia. Hours later, he passed away.

“He was the only bread-earner in the family. Since his passing, our eldest son has had to quit studies and take up a tailoring job,” she said.

Ahmed’s family is one of the many that have accused the BMHRC, which is run by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), of negligence or non-admission of Covid patients. Last week, a Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee came down heavily on the hospital for “not having a general medicine department” to look after Covid patients. 

ThePrint reached BMHRC director Prabha Desikan by call but there was no response. BMHRC Public Relations Officer (PRO) Ritesh Purohit refused to comment on the matter.

However, a staff member, who didn’t wish to be named, said a dearth of doctors was the reason why the facility was unable to cater to Covid patients. “There are hardly enough doctors here. There is no general medicine department, and most senior doctors are incharge of multiple roles and departments. As a result, it’s impossible to admit all Covid patients who come here,” the hospital staff member added.

Acknowledging that the gas tragedy survivors make for a “more vulnerable group” when it comes to Covid, Bhopal Chief Medical and Health Officer (CMHO) Prabhakar Tiwari said, “But the treatment for all Covid patients remains the same. And no hospital can or should deny anyone any admission. Shortage of doctors is not a good excuse.” 

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Hit hard by pandemic

The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, among the worst industrial disasters of the world, left around 3,000 people dead, according to official estimates. However, NGOs say the figure is closer to 15,000. Thousands of others were left with lifelong lung ailments, while many suffered loss of eyesight, or developed diabetes or other chronic illnesses.

In 1991, the Supreme Court directed Union Carbide Limited to set up a 350-bed super-speciality facility to treat the survivors free of cost. That is how the BMHRC came into being. 

Along with the BMHRC, the patients are also eligible for free treatment at six other state-run facilities, but they are much smaller in comparison. 

Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre | Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint
Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre | Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint

The Madhya Pradesh government’s initial reaction when the Covid crisis hit last March was to convert BMHRC into a dedicated hospital for coronavirus patients. But when activists protested this decision, noting that it was depriving gas survivors with other illnesses of treatment, the decision was reversed in April.  The BMHRC had come under the scanner for alleged negligence with respect to Covid patients last year as well. 

As of now, according to the aforementioned staffer, the facility has 50 oxygen beds for Covid patients.

Since the start of the pandemic, Bhopal gas tragedy survivors have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19. Last year, multiple NGOs associated with relief work for gas tragedy survivors claimed that the majority of the city’s Covid fatalities — over 60 per cent — had been exposed to the gas leak in 1984.

On 3 December last year, the anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the state government said 102 of the 518 Covid fatalities recorded in the city were gas tragedy survivors. The Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), an NGO, claimed at the time that the figure was at least 254. They said they had derived the number by visiting the homes of 450 of the 518 Covid fatalities. 

In the wake of the second Covid wave, the chief medical officer of gas relief in Bhopal, Dr Ravi Verma, said 218 of the Covid deaths in Bhopal are 1984 survivors. 

But this figure is disputed by NGOs as well.

Rachna Dhingra of the BGIA said that, as of March, 321 of the 650 Covid deaths in Bhopal were gas tragedy victims. “And this is only till March, so it doesn’t even include the second surge deaths. We collected copies of the gas peedit cards of those who died as evidence. The government is severely undercounting these deaths,” she added. 

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Fear among gas tragedy survivors

At the quarters allotted to the gas tragedy survivors in Bhopal, the second wave has given rise to a widespread — and growing — fear of contracting Covid and having nowhere to go.

The quarters allotted to gas tragedy survivors in Bhopal | Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint
Quarters allotted to gas tragedy survivors in Bhopal | Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint

Narayan Lehariya, who lives at the quarters in Karond square, said he is not as worried about his own health, as he is about his wife Uma’s. His wife, he added, is a survivor of the gas tragedy.

“She already has so many problems because of exposure to the gas — she lost her eyesight many years ago and we had to get an operation done. She also gets chest pain from time to time. If someone like her contracts Covid, where will we go?” he asked.

Lehariya said he has stopped going to the BMHRC for regular treatment as well. “There are barely any doctors there, so what’s the point?” he added.

Mohammed Saeed, who has been residing in one such quarter for over three decades, said he was thankful that his “wife and children recovered from Covid after contracting it last month”. “If I had caught it too, I am not sure how I would have fought it since I already have sustained lung issues due to the gas exposure,” he added.

Many survivors said they wish to be vaccinated on priority, even as they added that they are hesitant about going to vaccination centres that often get crowded.

CMHO Tiwari, however, said no special arrangement has been made for the gas tragedy survivors to get vaccinated. “First, the healthcare workers got vaccinated on priority. Then, those above 45, I am sure many of the gas tragedy survivors got covered in that category,” he added.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan) 

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