Patna: In the month of August, when Bihar was gearing up for the first state elections in India during the COVID-19 pandemic, it got two hospitals for COVID-19 patients funded by the controversial PM CARES Fund.
In a series of tweets from his handle on August 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced: “PM-CARES Fund Trust has decided to allocate funds for fight against COVID-19 by way of establishment of 500-bed COVID-19 Makeshift Hospitals at Patna & Muzaffarpur, Bihar by DRDO. This will go a long way in improving COVID care in Bihar (sic)."
However, one of the two hospitals is now faced with a low occupancy rate, staff not following safety precautions and a lack of awareness among people about the free and highly-equipped hospital, which is admittedly far from the city.
The 500-bed hospital in Bihta, Patna, has not even had 100 patients in all since its inauguration on August 24. The hospital has 375 normal beds and 125 ICU beds. According to hospital authorities – as on August 27 – the hospital had received a total of 82 patients out of which 61 had recovered and were discharged. At the moment, 13 patients were recovering in the COVID ward and there were four patients in the ICU.
On the other hand, the AIIMS in Patna has about 200 patients out of which about 80 patients are in ICU, almost the same number which the hospital in Bihta has treated in total. Aside from lesser patients, the hospital is by many problems and health experts believe that it was more of an election gimmick rather than an actual health centre.
Too Much, Too Late
Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, president of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum, an advocacy group, said: “Setting up the hospitals is welcome and it should be done, but at the same time these things should not be done just for an election jumla. These hospitals should have been set up in areas where more health infrastructure is needed, instead of a city like Patna where there are so many hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients already.”
“What do they (the government) want? For every patient to travel to Patna for treatment? This is the main reason behind the low occupancy of this hospital. It is also going to meet the fate of those railway compartments and naval ships that were turned into isolation facilities and later withdrawn due to there being no takers,” he added.
In August, the number of COVID beds in Bihar’s hospitals increased after the government gave a go ahead to private hospitals in Patna. According to reports, the occupancy rate for COVID beds in Patna’s Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH), Nalanda Medical College and Hospital (NMCH) and other hospitals started declining after the rate of positive patients dropped. A big reason behind the lesser occupancy were the new guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare about home isolation.
Good Service but No Precautions
NewsClick spoke to family members of patients who have been discharged from the hospital. All of them praised the treatment and services given to the patients.
Sixty-year-old Kamlesh Rai was suffering from fever and had to be taken to Netaji Subhash Chandra Hospital. From there, he was referred to the Bihta hospital where he was treated for a day. Later, he was referred to AIIMS Patna as he showed no symptoms of COVID-19.
Rahul Rai, Kamlesh’s son, said: “The hospital didn’t charge us a single rupee and the staff was very nice. My father was taken care and the hospital also provided an ambulance to shift my father to AIIMS Patna.” Other families also recounted a favourable experience.
However, in NewsClick’s two visits to the hospital, we could spot a range of violations of COVID-19 guidelines. Though entry to the ward was restricted to visitors and other employees, people in the administration zone could be seen walking around without masks on.
During both visits, just a name and contact details were enough to get through into the admin zone. Temperature or oxygen levels were not checked at any stage. These checks have become basic precautions resorted to even by shops and malls to keep a tab on symptomatic patients.
When asked about the staff in the admin area and the laboratory not following precautions, officer-in-charge Lt. Colonel Devdutt Atrey first said that it was a green zone and no patients or anyone from the ward enters the area. However, when questioned about guideline violations, he admitted it was an “area where we have to improve.”
Less Publicity Hampers Occupancy
The day the hospital was first thrown open to the public, tweets by the PMO were the only source of information about its existence. Though the media was invited to the facility and given a tour of the hospital, not much happened.
The Bihar government’s timely updates on its health department’s social media found no mention of the Bihta Covid Care Hospital.
“There is a need for more publicity and awareness. The treatment at this hospital is completely free and we don’t charge anything from the patients. If more and more people get to know about it, it will be better for people,” Lt Colonel Atrey said. However, villagers near the hospital know about AIIMS Patna but not the hospital next door.
Sabita Devi, who lives in Dhibra village of Patna district, said she had not heard of a COVID-19 hospital in Bihta – the next village. “Actually there are no corona cases in our village but we know about AIIMS Patna and if anything happens to anyone, we will take the patient to AIIMS,” Devi said.
No Relief for AIIMS Patna
“There are no patients at the Bihta hospital, I spoke to them about five days ago and there were no patients at that time. Initially, people didn’t know about the hospital. Then there is the matter of distance from the capital. They are two major factors behind the low occupancy at this hospital,” said President of Resident Doctors’ Association (RDA), AIIMS Patna Dr. Vinay Kumar.
“Though there are beds available at NMCH and PMCH, people have so much faith in AIIMS Patna that everyone wants to go there,” Dr Kumar added.
According to Dr. Kumar, the real purpose behind the two hospitals were the Bihar elections. “Since the government was under huge pressure because of the coming election, these two hospitals were set up. However, it served no purpose as it is very far and was opened late,” he added.
“This hospital took no load from PMCH and AIIMS. There was a time when there was a huge shortage of beds but before these two PM CARES hospitals were opened, the number of beds at PMCH were increased and private hospitals also started taking patients,” he explained.