This week’s column is dedicated to the memory of innocent young lives, which were lost in the fire that swept through the nursery of a government hospital in Lahore.
The readers may remember the case exposed on a private television channel where an infant was sold to a childless couple by a trainee nurse in Karachi. While the police did a good job of tracking down the culprits and arresting them, it was the on camera attitude of the medical staff that caused first concern and then anger.
It was amply apparent that the people responsible for ensuring the safety of newborns appeared to be defending their lapse by showing hostility to the host and the camera team investigating the story. This was just one instance out of the many that surfaced, but one wonders as to how many similar incidents occur and are never exposed.
I happened to visit a government hospital to inquire after the ailing father of one of my employees. My first obstacle was to find a parking place for my car, as the space reserved for this purpose had been taken over by scores of families that had either accompanied patients or were there to fulfil their obligation of temardari. As I drove around searching for a spot, I passed a signboard that read “Reserved for Ambulances”. To my horror, I found it jammed with private cars and motorcycles.
Parking my vehicle some distance away from the hospital, I walked inside the main entrance, which also led to the ‘casualty’, to be greeted by wheeled stretchers loaded with incumbents scattered haphazardly across the hall.
Pushing through the throng of people and the hordes of flies that infested the place, I started climbing the stairs to the upper floors. I found that the first landing had become the temporary residence of a family, who were sleeping on the naked floor with utter disregard to the sputum and betel juice stains that were visible all around them.
Passing through a maze of dark, evil-smelling and spit-lined corridors, I was shown into a long narrow room, which looked more like a scene from the Florence Nightingale painting of the Crimean War Hospital. Picking my way through the beds, I finally reached my destination and paid my respects to the senior citizen lying on sheets that should have been laundered weeks ago.
I found that an army of attendants was engaged in performing tasks such as fetching medicines from pharmacies, sponging fever cases and pressing limbs. These attendants were not only littering the premises, but were also engaged in practices that were unhygienic and likely to spread infection. I left this particular ward wondering at the apathy of all concerned.
On another occasion, I was on tour in what could be termed as a big town, when I saw a building that proclaimed itself as a district hospital. What made me stop and gape open-mouthed was the sight of a long line of buffaloes sauntering out of the compound.
I was told on enquiry that the hospital was also being used as an animal byre. I was aghast at the callousness of the medical staff and the administration, which I am sure must be aware that the presence of the animals and their resultant defecation was the source of life-threatening infections.
I once met a minor accident on one of the rural roads and had to drive my driver, who was a little more gravely hurt, to a government health premises. One look at the conditions there and I decided that it would be more prudent to give the injured man a pain killer and drive another 50 kilometres to a private facility. I never regretted the decision.
I once asked an employee of mine, who lived in the rugged Potohar terrain, as to how they treated medical emergencies. His answer was not only simple, but fatalistic. He said: “We put him on a charpoy, leave the rest to God and begin our trek to the rural dispensary five miles down the track.”
And now back to the unfortunate children and the appalling tragedy that befell them. For whatever reason, the truth is that a fire did sweep through the nursery, snuffing out lives, which could have been saved. Indeed, the tragedy raises many questions, which need to be answered by the concerned hospital and its concerned staff:
If the fire occurred due to an electrical short circuit, why wasn’t the faulty wiring or other electrical components inspected and replaced?
Was the fire detected by fire alarms and if there were no such alarms installed - why?
Were the standard operating procedures and drills for a fire incident laid down, disseminated, practiced and regularly updated?
In addition, were the evacuation procedures laid down, disseminated and practiced?
Whatever the hospital administration may now state, our experience of visiting government-run facilities (even large ones) leads one to the conclusion that even if some written instructions did exist, they were not taken seriously.
What we are waiting to see is whether this incident will also be swept under the carpet like countless others, or will those that are responsible for the occurrence or its causes are brought to book. Only time will tell!
n The writer is a freelance columnist.