COVID-19 Update

Karnataka: slipping away

Print edition : July 31, 2020

A containment zone at Deepanjali Nagar ward in Bengaluru on July 4. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

A view of a COVID Care Centre with a 10,100-bed capacity at the Bangalore International Exhibition Centre in Bengaluru on July 7. Photo: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP

As the State government is struggling to identify the sources of the rapidly spreading infection, issues such as shortage of medical personnel and hospital beds for COVID treatment are causing concern.

It will not be wrong to say that the Karnataka government is losing the plot in its management of the COVID-19 spread in the State, particularly in Bengaluru. Ever since the pandemic broke out, the Health Department has been publishing a daily media bulletin giving the latest list of infected persons. What used to be a document containing a few pages has since late June turned into an almost 100-page volume as the number of cases have increased exponentially. The Department, which was lauded for its comprehensive “testing-(contact)tracing-isolation” system to contain the spread of the virus in the first three months of the pandemic, was struggling to identify the source of infection in an overwhelming majority of cases in the first week of July.

On June 24, the State had 10,118 cases, and the corresponding figure for Bengaluru was 1,678. By July 7, the figure rose sharply to 26,815 cases, with Bengaluru accounting for 11,361 of them. Of the 416 deaths recorded in the State so far, 252 were reported in the fortnight since June 24. Of the 155 deaths that have taken place in Bengaluru since the start of the pandemic, 77 took place in the past fortnight. The number of tests being done in the State has increased. Approximately 15,000 tests were conducted every day with a cumulative total of 7,22,305 tests done since March.

While the Health Minister and senior bureaucrats of the Ministry have not stated it categorically, experts are saying that the way the virus has spread in pockets of Bengaluru is a sign of community transmission. What is worrying is the lack of hospital beds in the city.

On June 30, a 52-year-old man, who had complained of severe breathlessness and high fever, was refused admission by 18 hospitals, including a couple of government hospitals. He died in an ambulance in the premises of a private hospital. On July 4, the body of a 65-year-old man infected with COVID-19 was reportedly lying unattended for hours. Having tested positive for the virus, he was waiting for an ambulance on the street for more than three hours when he complained of breathlessness and died. These are not isolated incidents. There have been many cases of people being turned away from hospitals.

In her Twitter post, Soumya Reddy, the Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Jayanagar in the city, narrated an incident in which even after her personal intervention, a patient who needed critical care could not be admitted to hospital.

A statement by the Chief Minister’s Office in late June had said that Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa had issued an order that 50 per cent of the beds in private hospitals should be reserved for treating COVID cases. This was followed by full-page advertisements in newspapers listing 73 private hospitals in Bengaluru identified for treatment of COVID patients, yet there have been cases of people being turned away at hospital gates. A Bengaluru Bruhat Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) health official said that this could be because the government has capped the cost of treatment for COVID patients at private hospitals. (At the highest slab, the price of an Isolation ICU with ventilator has been capped at Rs.25,000 a day.)

After Dr K. Sudhakar, Minister of Medical Education, warned of criminal action against hospitals refusing to treat COVID patients or charging exorbitant fees, a show cause notice was sent to hospitals flouting the rules but there has been no follow-up action so far. While it is unclear how many beds have actually been reserved for COVID patients in private hospitals, information from BBMP officials has revealed that 1,300 beds in government hospitals and 850 beds in government medical colleges reserved for COVID patients were almost occupied.

While the shortage of beds in private hospitals may be artificial, there is a real shortage of medical personnel to attend to COVID patients in the city as doctors and nurses are panicky. An audiovisual clip of Dr Taha Mateen, managing trustee of HBS hospital in Shivajinagar in the city, explaining the crisis, has gone viral. In the clip, which was shot in the ICU of the hospital, he says: “I have beds, oxygen beds, ventilators, but no doctors to handle patients. Patients are continuously calling me, because their fathers are breathless, their daughters are breathless, their brothers are breathless, and they cannot find a (hospital) room in Bangalore (sic),” Mateen also exhorts his colleagues to come back to the hospital. Dr R. Ravindra, the president of the Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, admitted that “all private hospitals are facing a shortage of medical personnel”.

The government has incentivised the services of medical and nursing students by saying that they will get five extra marks in the post-graduate National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) if they get involved in treating COVID patients.

The government’s response on the whole has been found wanting. A strict night curfew starting at 8 p.m. is being implemented in the city, and the entire State will be locked down on Sundays. Although it was certain that there would be a surge in cases in Bengaluru, the government has been slow to act.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a doctor and public health activist, said: “You cannot prepare for a pandemic in retrospect. You have to prepare ahead for a pandemic. There were enough warnings [in Bengaluru] that cases would rise, and that there would be panic among the people. What we are seeing here is that everything happens as a troubleshooting and firefighting kind of exercise.”

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