The LocalCircles survey also revealed that 7% of the respondents had to bribe (in cash or kind) hospital or government officials to secure the ICU bed.

Nurses standing next to empty beds in a COVID hospital Image for representation
Coronavirus Coronavirus Tuesday, September 22, 2020 - 13:21

The death of a loved one is always painful, but sometimes, it’s harder to come to terms with it when something could have been done about it. Sumith* knows this feeling all too well, because two months ago, he lost his grandfather to COVID-19. Sumith believes that if the family had been able to get a bed for him in the Intensive Care Unit, his grandfather may have been alive today.

“My grandmother and grandfather had both tested positive for the novel coronavirus. We tried to get a bed in the designated COVID-19 government hospital, but they turned us away. We lost around five days like that… Finally, after a local MLA saw my social media plea, he asked for a private hospital to provide treatment,” Sumith recounts. “While my grandmother was able to get treatment and is fine now, it was too late for my grandfather,” says the Hyderabad-based businessman.

Sumith’s story – where he needed someone’s recommendation to get COVID-19 treatment for a loved one – is unfortunately common. A recent survey has found that only 4% of patients were able to get a COVID-19 ICU bed through the routine process, while 78% had to use connections and clout.

The number of coronavirus cases in India has mounted to 54 lakh. An average of over 90,000 cases per day have been recorded over the last two weeks. Now hospitals are seeing more critical patients than they did in May-June this year. LocalCircles, a community outreach social media organization, received many complaints from across the country about people not finding ICU beds in government or private hospitals for family and loved ones. In a survey created by them, over 17,000 responses from people in over 211 districts in India were collected. 65% of the respondents were men while 35% were women. 52% of the respondents were from tier 1 cities, 26% from tier 2 cities, and 22% were from tier 3 and 4 cities, and rural districts.

Respondents were asked about the experiences of people in their social network with regard to getting a COVID-19 ICU bed. In response, 55% of them said that they did not know any such person. These respondents were taken out of the sample, in order to only analyse experiences of people who fell under this criterion.

When this sample was analysed, 38% of them said they had to use clout to secure an ICU bed while 7% said they had to follow up extensively to do the same. 40% said they had to use their connections and follow up extensively.

For Chennai-based Harsha* and his father Vijay* for instance, getting admitted to a private hospital proved very difficult after their COVID-19 test results were positive. Within a matter of hours, Harsha’s condition worsened, with difficulty in breathing. It was only after his sisters-in-law spoke with their connections in the hospital management that Harsha and Vijay were able to get admission. Harsha was able to get admitted to the ICU.

The LocalCircles survey also found that many had to escalate this issue via social media or complain to the government to secure an ICU bed.

This is something that has been raised by social and political workers as well. Hyderabad-based Majlis Bachao Tehreek’s spokesperson Amjed Ullah Khan has been raising these requests and grievances on his social media regularly. Sowmya Reddy, a Karnataka MLA from Jayanagara, posted a series of tweets in July highlighting the “pathetic” condition of hospitals in the state. This was after she spent over five hours trying to secure a hospital bed for a critical COVID-19 patient.

The LocalCircles survey also revealed that 7% of the respondents had to bribe (in cash or kind) hospital or government officials to secure the ICU bed. Only 4% secured one without any of the above. Another 4% said they did not get an ICU bed at all.

In Delhi, patients complained that the Delhi government's app, Delhi Corona, shows ICU beds available in some hospitals. However, when the hospital was contacted, they were told that the bed was not available.

The Delhi government recently asked 33 big private hospitals in the territory to reserve 80% of their ICU beds for COVID-19 patients. However, whether this is actually implemented remains to be seen, as an association of healthcare providers said that it would challenge the High Court order because such a move would hamper the treatment of non-COVID-19 patients with critical ailments.

In the next question of the survey, citizens were asked if it should be mandatory for all hospitals to list on their websites and building entrances the real-time ICU bed availability. A whopping 92% of citizens responded in its favour.

According to many respondents, those with clout and connections were able to get ICU beds even if they have only mild symptoms. However, those who do not have that privilege, including healthcare workers with severe symptoms, are denied ICU beds or granted the same only much later.

The respondents said that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the state Health Departments ought to issue appropriate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to hospitals in making ICU bed availability more transparent. This could be done by displaying this information in real time on their website and building entrances, so that the only criterion for who gets an ICU bed is the patient's condition.

Further, given the spurt in coronavirus cases in India over the last two months, it was also emphasised that states must work towards increasing their ICU bed capacity. The need for them will only rise further, especially given that the festive season is coming up.

LocalCircles said it will submit a copy of this report to senior members of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the chief secretaries of all states.

*Names changed

(With IANS inputs)

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