Judicial rebuke

Gujarat’s inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis draws a sharp reaction from the High Court.

Published : Jun 04, 2020 16:39 IST

In Ahmedabad on June 1 after lockdown restrictions were relaxed.

In Ahmedabad on June 1 after lockdown restrictions were relaxed.

On May 23, the Gujarat High Court issued a strongly worded order on the State government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 situation. While hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on the crisis and taking cognisance of several complaints, the bench of Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Ilesh Vora was scathing in its criticism of the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad. Threatening to conduct surprise visits to the Civil Hospital, which they said was “as good as a dungeon or maybe even worse”, the judges asked State Health Minister Nitin Patel and Health and Family Welfare Secretary Jayanti Ravi whether they had even bothered to visit the hospital.

The bench, which acknowledged an anonymous letter written by a doctor (assumed to be working in the civil hospital), asked the State to pull up its socks. In its order it directed the State government to set up on a war footing a computerised control centre with real-time information on facilities across districts. Information about phone numbers of hospitals and ambulances, addresses, bed availability and persons in-charge should be accessible to everyone via the control centre, the court said. Additionally, people must be able to file complaints and grievances at the centre. The bench said the government should appoint in each state hospital a representative who would be in contact with the control centre. Describing the situation in Ahmedabad as deeply distressing, the judges said that the government should ensure that no patient was made to run from one hospital to another to beg for admission. It directed that all government hospitals with more than 50 beds and ICUs (intensive care units) in Gujarat should immediately be converted into dedicated COVID-19 hospitals and private laboratories should be able to conduct COVID-19 tests.

(Until recently the State government did not allow private laboratories to conduct COVID tests, though the Indian Council for Medical Research had issued guidelines allowing private labs to conduct tests.)

The State government in its reply to the order agreed to comply with the directives but refuted the allegation that it was not doing enough.

A few days after the scathing order was issued, Chief Justice Vikram Nath took over the bench that had been hearing the PIL since May 11 on all issues pertaining to the COVID-19 situation. Justice Pardiwala, who had been heading the bench, was now relegated to a junior position. On May 28, when Chief Justice Vikram Nath took over, he said highlighting a government’s shortcomings “only creates fear in the minds of people”. In a stunning volte-face, the new bench said: “If the State government would not have been doing anything, as alleged, then probably, by now, we all would have been dead.”

An informed source in Ahmedabad said the change in the roster came abruptly on the last working day of the week when the court was due to hear the PIL. Activists and several advocates wrote to the Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court expressing their “disappointment and serious concern” regarding his decision to change the bench, and argued that the change might break the continuity of the hearings and the significant directions that the court had issued to the government earlier.

The Chief Justice said: “All that we are doing in this litigation is to keep the State government conscious and active by reminding it of its constitutional and statutory obligations…. The COVID-19 crisis is a humanitarian crisis, not a political crisis. Hence, it is imperative that no one politicises this issue…. In these extraordinary circumstances, the role of the opposition is equally important. There is no denying that the role of the Opposition is to hold the government to account, but in times like this a helping hand would be more beneficial than a critical tongue…. Merely criticising the government in power is not going to magically cure people of COVID-19, nor is it going to make the dead come back to life…. While adversarial criticism may do no good, constructive criticism can help.”

Notwithstanding this extraordinary turnaround, Gujarat’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been abysmally poor. That the High Court intervened is an indication of the gravity of the situation.

The numbers tell their own tale. As of June 1, the State had 16,343 positive cases and 1,007 deaths. Ahmedabad accounts for 80 per cent of the cases and has reported almost 800 deaths. Gujarat’s mortality rate at 6.14 per cent is far higher than the national average of 2.8 per cent and Maharashtra’s 3.37 per cent. The 1,200-bed Civil Hospital accounts for half the deaths.

The much flaunted “Gujarat model” has clearly not been very effective in this crisis. One doctor said: “The only thing Gujarat has shown is: how not to do it. We have seen poor administration, neglect towards health care workers, system failures, bad ideas and, worse still, corruption and nepotism.”

Gujarat has also witnessed over the past few weeks tragic scenes of migrants not being able to go home, even though the State claims trains have been arranged.

Citizens’ groups, mediapersons and doctors’ associations have filed complaints with the administration about the condition of hospitals, the risks faced by health care workers as they function without protective gear, dead bodies being dumped in strange locations, and a host of other COVID-related issues. According to the High Court records, 15 PILs have been filed in connection with COVID and the administration’s poor performance.

Achyut Yagnik, who runs the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, said: “The problem in Gujarat currently is that they are not looking at tackling the problem on a war footing. Politics and petty power play is taking precedence over the COVID crisis. We can see how that is affecting the State. The need of the hour is strong leadership, which is lacking.” On the migrants’ issue, he said: “The migrant issue is so tragic, yet they are unwilling to acknowledge it. Instead they are downplaying the numbers.”

Chief Minister Vijay Rupani clings to his belief that the Tabligi Jamaat congregation held in March in Delhi was responsible for the high number of cases in Ahmedabad. Hussain Apa, a social worker in the Bombay hotel area of Ahmedabad said: “Rupani makes it sound as though the Tabligi is responsible for the spread. But there were just 14 members who went [to the congregation]. Unfortunately, the minorities in Ahmedabad do not trust the government and when they said we had to practise social distancing, no one in our colonies could understand what they were trying to do. Many thought it was another ploy to hurt Muslims. So it took a while for people to grasp the gravity of the disease and by that time community transmission had begun.”

The walled city of Ahmedabad houses slums and low-income homes. This densely populated area is now witnessing hundreds of positive cases daily. Unfortunately, most are from minority communities, said Apa.

Ventilator scam?

There is reportedly a scam surrounding the purchase of ventilators from a local company that has links with the Chief Minister.

According to reports, the government’s purchase of a locally made ventilator called Dhaman-1 could have led to some 300 deaths in the Civil Hospital. Another report pointed out that the ventilators did not pass the Drug Controller General of India test and was therefore not fit to be used to treat this fatal disease. Rupani is allegedly linked to Jyoti CNC, the Rajkot-based company that made Dhaman-1.

The government justified the purchase saying the higher-end machines were being used for critical patients in intensive care units (ICUs), while the more basic ones such as Dhaman-1 were used for milder cases. A news report said that hundreds of Dhaman-1 ventilators were lying unpacked in the Civil Hospital godown.

The spread of the contagion is more widespread in the cities, as it is in other States. However, the difference in numbers between Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat is stark. While Ahmedabad has been brought to its knees, the other three major urban hubs have put in place action plans that seem to work. Vinod Rao, special officer-in-charge in Vadodara, told the media that 1,086 positive cases and 42 deaths had been recorded in the city so far. The city has planned 12,000 beds for the second phase of the pandemic. Rao says the city authorities are in the process of identifying close to five lakh high-risk individuals who will be advised home isolation.

Surat, which witnessed violence from migrants wanting to go home, appears to have the issue under control with several more trains being organised to take workers to their home States of Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. This diamond-cutting and textile-trading hub had recorded 1,565 cases and 69 deaths as of May 30. It opened its famous wholesale markets on an odd-and-even basis from May 31.

Rajkot in Saurashtra has reported two deaths and 84 cases. With this low number, local residents believe the spread is under control. However, once inter-district travel increases, there is a possibility of a spike when people from Ahmedabad start arriving to work in the oil and gas factories.

Gujarat’s lockdown exit plan includes lifting restrictions on regional travel. The State is heavily industrialised and would need to restart operations at the earliest. In an official release Rupani said: “In this new unlocking effort, we have to continue to work with coronavirus without any economic blockade so that no work is hampered.”

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