The Gujarat High Court bench of Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Ilesh Vora was shuffled on May 28. The change of roster came on the last working day of the week after the bench passed an order lambasting the Gujarat government on its management of COVID-19 in the state on May 22. The bench was due to hear PIL applications on all issues pertaining to management of COVID-19 situation in Gujarat, which has the second highest coronavirus death rate in the country.
The new bench of Chief Justice Vikramnath Singh and Justice Pardiwala, headed by the Chief Justice, will now hear the public interest litgations (PILs) concerning state of COVID-19 management in Gujarat.
Justice Vora was transferred to a bench headed by Justice Chhaya that will hear other matters.
The abrupt change of roster comes following an order of May 22 where the division bench of Justice Pardiwala and Justice Vora, headed by Justice Pardiwala, had pulled up the Gujarat government over its bad management of COVID-19 pandemic in the state. The bench compared the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital to a “dungeon” in its order.
In the order, Justice Pardiwala’s bench had questioned Deputy Chief Minister and Health Minister Nitin Patel and senior IAS officers, asking if the Gujarat government was “artificially controlling the number of cases in the State by restricting testing in private laboratories.”
In another order on May 25, the same bench apprised the state government that it would pay a surprise visit to Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad.
Following the 143-page order on March 22, the Gujarat government had moved a civil application that was endorsed by Chief Justice Vikramnath Singh as ‘urgent’ and to be heard on same day.
In the application, the government attempted to clarify that the condition in the Civil Hospital “is not as pathetic” as Justice Pardiwala’s bench had observed. However, Justice Pardiwala’s bench observed that “it was too early to give a final certificate” and added that the bench shall visit the hospital any morning to put an end to the controversy.
The orders were issued as a PIL filed by a local resident of Ahmedabad was being heard by the bench since May 11. Later suo motu cognizance was taken by the court and a PIL was filed that cited several media reports and a letter by an anonymous local doctor citing 22 issues in the Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad, while highlighting the dreadful conditions.
Following this, the Ahmedabad Medical Association (AMA) filed a PIL against the State government on May 28 for prohibiting any private laboratory to test for COVID-19 unless permission is granted by nodal health officials.
Noticeably, the Gujarat government, on May 17, had issued a fresh guideline according to which a doctor or hospital is mandated to seek permission from government-nominated health officials before conducting tests for COVID-19 of any patient.
The notification also stated that requests from government hospitals shall be given priority over private hospitals. Earlier, private laboratories were free to conduct tests, as per India Council of Medical research, or ICMR guidelines that had approved 17 private laboratories in Gujarat, including seven in Ahmedabad, to conduct the test.
Subsequently, a press conference of the health department stopped and details like the number of comorbid patients, the total number of positive cases per day were omitted from the list, restricting it to the total number of cases and deaths in a day.
Earlier, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Gujarat government had opposed testing by private laboratories before the bench of Justice Pardiwala on grounds that it would lead to 70% of the population getting tested, adding that more COVID-19 positive cases would generate a“fear psychosis”.
The order and change in testing policy has been criticised by multiple healthcare workers organisations. The Ahmedabad Hospital and Nursing Homes Association has written a letter to Jayanti Ravi, Principal Secretary, Health. In the letter, the association has questioned: “Whose decision is it to restrict testing? The same authority will be responsible for disastrous consequences.”
On May 29, however, the Gujarat government told the High Court that it would not change its policy of not allowing any private laboratory to test a patient for COVID-19 on basis of a prescription by any doctor.
Meanwhile, multiple patients await permission to be tested for COVID -19. A patient, Rajput Dharmendra’s COVID-19 report arrived a day after his death on May 24. His friend Gulab Singh took to social media to question the government. “Kya Corona test ke liye Gujarat (Ahmedabad) me marna jaruri hai (Is it necessary to die to get tested for corona in Gujarat (Ahmedabad)?”, he asked.
“My friend Rajput Dharmendra began showing some symptoms on May 22 so he went to a testing centre but he wasn’t tested on the day. Rather authorities gave him a number. On May 24, he had shortness of breath and was taken to SMS hospital, Chandkheda, on an ambulance of 108 emergency services. The hospital had no ventilator so the doctors requested multiple private hospitals asking for a ventilator. But Dharmendra had no report confirming him to be COVID-19 so every hospital refused. The doctor finally called 108 services for an ambulance but this time even they refused to come. So the doctor decided to take him to Civil Hospital in his own car but by the time they reached, Dharmendra died. The next day, Dharmendra’s post mortem report confirmed he was COVID-19 positive,” stated Singh.
Singh and Dharmendra’s family members who came in contact with him are still waiting to be tested for COVID-19.
In another case, Manjula Vachheta’s report showed that the testing sample was taken three hours after her death. According to her son, Vachheta died at 5.30 a.m on May 24 while her samples were collected at 9.06 a.m the same day.
“Her haemoglobin level had dropped on May 14 and she had to be administered blood. By May 21, she grew weaker and complained of breathlessness. On May 22, we decided to admit her to a private hospital but got to know about restrictions in testing in private hospitals, so we took her to Civil Hospital. We took her to the trauma centre, but looking at her symptoms she was taken to he COVID hospital on the same campus and later shifted to GCRI. For three days, she was admitted but wasn’t tested despite being admitted in a government hospital. On May 24, I got a call from hospital informing me that my mother had died. At around 11 a.m my family received the body. When we asked for her COVID report, we did not get any response. After two days of following up, on May 26, we were told the report is ready and we should pick it up,” said Pradip Vaccheta, Manjula’s son.
Shantaben Shah, a 92 year old woman, died on May 23 in a private hospital after waiting four days for being tested for COVID -19. Her son, Vijaybhai Shah, who has also developed symptoms and is admitted in another private hospital, also waits to be tested for six days now.
Many people have also taken to social media seeking help to get their kin tested after waiting for their turn to no avail.