Bihar’s odious and short-sighted response to Covid-19

Bihar is reeling under spiraling Covid-19 deaths, lack of resources & crass corruption


Har ek hospital mein Hungama ho raha hai, kahan se shuru kare batana!” (There is ruckus in every hospital, I don’t know where to start), remarked Lokesh Pushkar in anguish, on the ground situation in the city of Muzaffarpur.

From dearth of oxygen supply, cylinders, long queues outside hospitals, hoarding, black marketing to police harassment, Lokesh glossed over the failures of the Bihar government. He told SabrangIndia that there is no chance for a patient to be admitted if they don’t have contacts in the city. “You cannot get a bed here. You either stand in the queue and die while gasping for breath or get a bed through some cabal of powerful people”, he said.

He also revealed the ongoing corruption in Muzaffarpur regarding oxygen cylinders. He said, “A BJP leader has opened a medical college here and yesterday (May 5), we were told that the college has 40 cylinders that will be made available to all. On May 6, another BJP leader fell sick and needed to be admitted, but the medical college could not provide him with any oxygen because the nozzle of the cylinders was defective”. He said, “Is it possible that 40 nozzles will turn out to be defective at the same time?”

Lokesh told SabrangIndia that oxygen cylinders are being sold for Rs.50,000 and more, to desperate and needy people. The main oxygen plants in Muzaffarpur are supplying oxygen to only hospitals and this has further complicated matters for home isolated patients. Raising further alarms, Lokesh said, “The gas plant in Damodarpur in Muzaffarpur, which is one of the main oxygen suppliers in the city was shut down for some time and that led to a lot of panic. It started functioning just two days ago. I don’t understand the system here.”

He further complained about hospitals not admitting critical Covid-19 patients whose oxygen levels drop below 90. Hospitals in the city have created more red tape for patients who are compelled to finish all formalities like form submission, advance payment before getting admitted.

According to the government bulletin dated May 7, Bihar has clocked 15,000 fresh cases and 90 deaths in the past 24 hours. Muzaffarpur alone seems to have recorded 9 deaths. But Lokesh disagreed and alleged that the data is false. He told SabrangIndia, “I don’t know what is happening in the rest of the State, but here alone (Muzaffarpur), I am almost seeing 200 deaths daily. The government is not counting the patients who die at home. The main cremation happens in Sangham Ghat but people fail to report the reality from different crematoria and burial grounds.” However, he could not give us details about graveyards and burial grounds in the city. Besides oxygen, he said the prices of wood and cow dung cake has also increased manifold. 

In more unfortunate news, he told SabrangIndia that the police have stooped very low, harassing common citizens running from pillar to post for help. “If you step out due to some emergency and don’t have necessary papers/documents to prove that the emergency pertains to Covid-19 patients, the police will stop and harass you. Should I worry about the patient in need or papers to warrant my desperation?” he rhetorically asked.

The administration is clearly failing in managing the crisis and following basic Covid norms, like sanitation. “Not one residential society I know, has been sanitised”, said Lokesh, adding, “Houses that have had Covid patients and virus-related deaths are also not taken care of”.

Perturbed by the disastrous Covid-19 consequences, Lokesh ended the conservation with, “koi dekhne wala nahi hai, aur Saansad shaanth baithe hai” (There is nobody to care and the parliamentarians are quiet).

In Kishanganj, local Akil Alam told SabrangIndia that two people succumbed to the virus on May 5. The Government data shows no deaths. According to Alam, Kishanganj has three private hospitals, two government hospitals and a grand total of six ventilators for close to 1,400 active Covid infected patients. He added that the ventilators were also provided after a man died tragically, gasping for oxygen.

“We did not have ventilators in the city. A few days ago, one man died outside a hospital. After a lot of hue and cry, arrangements were made for 6 ventilators”, he said. He added that vaccine registration for 18 and above is yet to start in the city.

Bhaskar Nikhil from Madhepura had to say that the system is crumbling under the pressure of Covid-19. “Bhaut bura haal hai” (Madhepura is in a very bad condition), he said. He pointed out that, Jan Nayak Karpoori Thakur Medical College and Hospital which was recently inaugurated by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and built at the cost of Rs. 800 crores, has no oxygen supply.

“They (the administration) have just declared that they have set up 500 Covid beds, but have failed to provide oxygen for these beds. For such 500 beds, there are merely 100 doctors in the Covid ward! Out of these 100 doctors, around 40 are not reporting for duty because they are down with Covid”, he said. He suggested that this centre of 500 beds needs at least 300 doctors. Noting that the sudden spike is devastating India unabated, Bhaskar said that the Capital city of Patna is also not offering any respite. “The situation is such that even if people are willing to pay money, there are no vacant beds”, remarked Bhaskar. People from smaller cities are traveling to Patna only to find all hospitals filled to capacity.

He told SabrangIndia that people who have money are going to private hospitals but government hospitals are unable to cope. On the death rate, he said, “I am almost seeing 15 deaths daily. But this is only in Jan Nayak Hospital. I don’t know about other hospitals in Madhepura.” As per Government data, Madhepura has recorded 1 death on May 1, two on May 2, six on May 3, three on May 4, two on May 5 and one on May 6.

Bhaskar Kumar Nikhil, who also runs an agency called Shringi Rishi Sewa Mission to help the residents of Madhepura with respect to medicines, beds, oxygen, told SabrangIndia about the issues in procuring oxygen in the city. He said, “Earlier (in April, 2021) the oxygen supply came from Darbhanga and Purnia but the District Magistrate stepped in and said that oxygen will not be supplied to any individual sans his consent.”

This created further confusion and people in dire need were getting tied up in the bureaucratic red tape. However, Bhaskar’s Sewa Mission managed to speak to the DM who kept aside a fixed quota for them to procure oxygen and deliver to places where Covid patients home isolate. “Now, we are somehow managing, but everyone is very tired, I have not been able to sleep since the second wave, my phone rings all the time”, he said.

According to a Times of India report dated April 25, a press statement was issued by the District administration DM Roshan Kushwaha that four private hospitals in Arrah have been reserved for Covid-19 patients. The publication reported that the DM had also asked Ambika Gas Agency to ensure that there is adequate oxygen supply in the city.

But Ashutosh Pandey, a local of Arrah and documentary/filmmaker, told SabrangIndia, “These private hospitals are open only for money. These hospitals have in fact asked me for oxygen. What is the point of a hospital that does not have back up? The DM Rohan ji, does not even take my calls any more”.

Talking specifically about Arrah, Pandey said that there are no ventilators in the region. The private hospitals are non-functional and there is only one Government hospital (Sadar Hospital) that treats Covid-19 patients. “Sadar hospital only has one doctor, and the OPD (outpatient department) has been shut down. The private hospitals here like Sunilam, Rajendra and Ayushman don’t have oxygen supply, ventilators or even basic devices like pulse oximeters”, he said. Anumandal Hospital in Jagdishpur also has only one doctor since April 16. “We have been told that most doctors have Covid-19 but we don’t know a way to verify this information”, he said. 

Bhojpur District, which has three sub divisions (Arrah, Jagdishpur and Piro) has clocked around 5 deaths since May 1. These statistics don’t match the data provided by Mr. Ashutosh Pandey to SabrangIndia. “I go to the hospital (Sadar) almost every day. In the morning around 8 A.M, I see 8-9 bodies lying unattended. By evening this number touches 20. I have not left my house in two days, the image of so many corpses have made me very upset, I am mentally exhausted. A wave of anxiety has just come over me”, he said.

He told us that he has one Shamshan ghat (cremation ground) and two burial grounds near his house. He has been seeing 20 to 25 bodies in the cremation ground and 8 to 10 bodies in burial grounds since April 14. This is just a rough estimate from one cremation ground and two burial grounds in the entire city of Arrah. The numbers from the entire district are expectedly higher.

Even in this unprecedented and extraordinary catastrophe, crippling corruption in the State of Bihar has not lost its sheen. Pandey told us that PPE suits are worth Rs. 1,000, thermometers are available for Rs. 500 (earlier sold for Rs. 100), oximeters for Rs. 5,000, CT scans for Rs. 7,000 (earlier Rs. 3,500). Apart from masks and sanitisers, basic Covid-19 medicines, gloves are not available in the local chemist shops. The price of ambulance service is also skyrocketing.

He further highlighted the issue of food in the district and the neighbouring villages. Owing to the Covid induced lockdown, maximum population who indulge in dehari (contract labour) are out of work and are completely dismayed by the system. Pandey told SabrangIndia, “A few days ago our (Arrah) MP RK Singh came. He was donned in a PPE suit, the administration had sanitised the entire city, that’s it; He never came back after that. This is the situation.”

Like Bhaskar Nikhil, even Ashutosh raised the issue of beds and said that people from Patna call him to enquire if beds are available in Bhojpur. “If a capital city’s infrastructure is so weak, how can small districts and towns manage the pressure?” he asked. “Aisi stithi hojaegi, iska toh kalpana bhi nahi kiya tha” (We will come down to this situation, I had never imagined”, he concluded.

Complacency, corruption and misgovernance has led to this health disaster that is choking India. John Hopkins University has now revealed that Covid-19 deaths in India are rising the fastest in the world at a rate of 143 percent. Health experts have already said that a third wave in the country is inevitable and the government needs to prepare itself. Meanwhile, the second wave remains a strong example of the saying ‘None of us will be safe until everyone is safe.’


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