Telangana: Suppressing numbers

Telangana’s citizens have more than their fair share of woes: oxygen is unavailable, ICU/ventilator beds are hard to get, and crematoria and graveyards are overwhelmed. But the government is in denial.

Published : May 22, 2021 06:00 IST

People waiting at the primary health centre in Kukatpally in Hyderabad on May 5 to get tested for COVID.

People waiting at the primary health centre in Kukatpally in Hyderabad on May 5 to get tested for COVID.

OHyderabad’s Old City, woke up to a choking sensation in his chest and a mild itch in his throat. Within hours, his breathing became laboured and he was in urgent need of oxygen. But getting a cylinder proved impossible. With hours ticking by, Saleem’s breathing became a painful wheeze and his oxygen saturation levels dropped below 60. On being told by an NGO about an oxygen cylinder that had been procured for a COVID-19 patient who later died, Saleem’s cousin bundled him into a three-wheeler and rushed him to Toli Chowki after a 12-km, 40-minute ride. Saleem was given oxygen in the three-wheeler itself, but it was too little, too late.

Mehrunissa, 27, the wife of an IT professional in Cyberabad, was five months pregnant when she tested positive for COVID on May 7. The hospital where her check-ups had been done refused to treat her because of her infection. Her husband rushed her from hospital to hospital in search of an oxygen-equipped bed, only to be told by hospital staff that they would call him when one became vacant. Both cases are typical of what COVID-19 patients and their relatives face in Telangana. Volunteers cry recounting the trauma of seeing “char mayat” (four corpses) a week even in localities that house hardly 150 families.

Government in denial

But the Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao government has been in denial. During both the first and second waves of the pandemic, Telangana has grossly under-reported COVID-19 cases, which on occasions rose exponentially, suppressed the true number of fatalities, and conducted far fewer tests than was necessary. It steadfastly refused to impose a lockdown, claiming that it would hurt the financially weaker sections of society and the State’s revenues, and even bafflingly had the State’s top bureaucrat declare that the second wave of the pandemic was under control. In between, the State witnessed the sacking of its Health Minister and several officials manning key positions in departments directly connected with the fight against the pandemic.

Also read: Government's all round failure to manage pandemic exposed

With oxygen unavailable, ICU/ventilator beds impossible to get, vials of Remdesivir being sold in the black market at ten times the cost, and crematoria and graveyards running full, the State’s citizens have more than their fair share of woes. Doses of vaccine sent by the Centre are in short supply and the Chief Minister rather prematurely announced that the State would soon have 4.22 crore doses procured directly from the manufacturers. Accusing the State government of complacency, public health experts and scientists said that had they been consulted they would have warned the government on the severity of the second wave.

Azmath Unnisa, who is the founder president of the NGO Imdad-Ul-Foqaraa and is now part of the ‘Taavvun’ helpdesk assisting people find beds, oxygen cylinders and medicines, sums up the situation in the State thus: “Hospitals, ambulance drivers, drivers transporting oxygen cylinders and several others loot money from the helpless. The government is clueless as to what is happening on the ground. The staff at government hospitals have been asking patients to procure their own oxygen cylinders. Desperate patients and their helpers have been calling our helplines round the clock. Their pleas for ventilator beds or oxygen or Remdesivir are traumatising.”

She narrated how a mother and daughter from Basthi Dawakhana in Hyderabad called her on May 10. Both had tested positive, and when the daughter started to throw up blood, they tried to get her to a hospital. But four hospitals turned them away. Said Azmath Unnisa: “Fear of COVID is killing people. And unlike in the first wave, we are seeing young people getting badly affected. Many patients who have tested positive but are not in need of oxygen are even going around shopping and meeting people. They say they have no one to even get basic provisions for them.” Patients lament that they are not able to find even a single bed with ventilator support in any of the government hospitals.

Rikith Shahi, a young COVID-19 crisis volunteer this correspondent spoke to over telephone, said about the trauma, panic and helplessness he goes through each time his phone rings. Said Shahi: “For the last 21 days I have attended to calls round the clock from people in the Khairatabad area of Hyderabad. I have not been able to help many. Hyderabad is supposed to be the global capital of vaccine production and the pharmacy of the world. The Telangana government says there’s no shortage of Remdesivir, but every pharmacy we turned to said no stock. But a guy down the road was selling it at a huge premium. With patients sinking in hospitals, their relatives were prepared to pay anything that was being asked. That’s why empty vials of Remdesivir were filled with distilled water and sold. To get a bed in a hospital you need influence and money. In this situation, it is fatal not knowing the ‘right’ people or not having money.”

Also read: The fiasco that is India’s COVID-19 vaccine policy

Volunteers say that as the second wave of infections leads to a surge in COVID deaths, it is too late for infrastructure to be strengthened. But they want the government to be transparent. The government’s response is that it has set up the Department of Health, Medical and Family Welfare’s online ‘COVID-19 Hospital Bed Availability Dashboard’. On May 12 it showed that of the 53,699 regular, oxygen and ICU beds in 110 government and 1,137 private hospitals across the State, 24,812 beds were vacant. However, patients were told by staff at government hospitals that there were no beds available.

Private hospital managements view the dashboards as an unnecessary infringement on free-market enterprise. Speaking to Frontline, the chief executive officer (CEO) of a leading hospital said that having a single dashboard for all hospitals was impractical. “Why do we need third-party control. This is just public appeasement,” he said.

But he is all praise for the Chandrashekhar Rao government, claiming that unlike neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, where there is constant interference from the vigilance and police departments and the judiciary in the administration of hospitals, there is none in Telangana. Said the CEO: “The Telangana Chief Secretary calls up my chairman every morning and enquires from him if all requirements for the smooth functioning of the hospital are available.”

For most patients even securing an ICU bed is not the end of their trauma. Ambulances charge patients exorbitant sums in addition to hospitals constantly hiking their costs. According to several patients, getting admitted at the ICU ward of a private hospital can cost nearly Rs. 2 lakh for a day. With residents of congested, economically poorer sections living in bastis in Hyderabad and the rural hinterland getting increasingly affected by the virus, entire families are falling into a vicious cycle of debt and penury.

Burial woes

As ambulances carrying the dead line up by dozens outside electric crematoria, people are turning to conventional methods to cremate the bodies. But cremation grounds in Hyderabad and smaller towns across the State have an acute shortage of firewood. It requires 500 to 600 kg of firewood to cremate a body. And the firewood that is needed is usually Eucalyptus or casuarina, or any wood with a high calorific value. The type of wood determines how long it takes for a body to be cremated, which is usually between five and eight hours.

Also read: COVID second wave: Telangana slow to act


Telangana announced a cursory night curfew starting from April 20, but with the common folk, the Telangana Doctors’ Federation and the judiciary strongly indicating their preference for a lockdown, the government declared a ten-day lockdown starting May 12.

Telangana has been declaring very low COVID-19 numbers. As of May 11, the State had 61,136 active cases, the caseload thus far being 5,06,988 and 2,803 deaths. The case fatality rate in the State is 0.55 per cent, half of the national average of 1.1 per cent. The State has administered 54,17,462 doses of vaccine.

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