The Gujarat High Court has taken the state government to task over the conditions of its health infrastructure amidst renewed complaints about the quality of the state’s public health system.
The Times News Network reports that the Gujarat High Court has “directed the government to strengthen its health infrastructure. It has been directed to provide safe and effective personal protective equipment (PPE), encourage recruitment of new doctors and nurses, set up nurse training programmes and encourage people to join the healthcare [workforce].” This, the report says, follows on from “a flurry of PILs [public interest litigations]”, in which “various litigants raised the issue related to inadequate health infrastructure.”
Indeed, this is not the first time the Gujarat state government has been criticised on the issue of healthcare infrastructure in the state – not even just during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, Manasvi Thapar petitioned the Gujarat High Court on the subject. As DNA India reported at the time, Thapar alleged in his affidavit that “the lack of infrastructure and medical facilities in the state…is attributing to the spread of water- and vector-borne diseases, with the state government not taking enough measures to contain it.”
Thapar filed suit in the wake of data released to the Lok Sabha at the time, indicating that Gujarat had recorded 4,772 H1N1 (swine flu) cases and 149 consequent deaths as of June 23rd that year. Subsequently, the Gujarat High Court demanded data as to the adequacy of the public healthcare infrastructure in India to tackle H1N1.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revitalised the scrutiny surrounding Gujarat’s healthcare system. In May, the state government took flak for the conditions in the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital. The Gujarat High Court castigated the conditions at the publicly-run facility in the state’s largest city. Justices criticised the state of the Hospital in harsh terms, proclaiming “it is very distressing and painful to note that the condition prevailing as on date in the Civil Hospital, is pathetic… as we said earlier, the Civil Hospital is meant to treat patients. However, it appears that as on date, it is as good as a dungeon. May be even worse than a dungeon.” If the comparison to a dungeon was not unflattering enough, justices also likened the Civil Hospital to the RMS Titanic.
Gujarat High Court Justices did not let the state off the hook after their condemnation of the state of the Civil Hospital. Turning its focus to the city of Surat earlier this week, it said “after having witnessed what happened in Ahmedabad, the state should have been more careful in tackling the situation in the city of Surat. We are informed that the delayed response from the state and city administration is responsible for the current situation in the city of Surat, which has gone from bad to worse [at that time, Surat had surpassed Ahmedabad in the number of active cases].
“The Health Department of the State Government knew that Surat would erupt in a matter of time. We are informed that the testing was not ramped up. Even the basic awareness to remove the fear psychosis about the disease is found lacking.”
The message now from the High Court is that the state government ought to prioritise public health above all else. “In fighting a public health crisis human life comes first, everything else is secondary,” it said. “We pressed the urgency and importance of the government’s need to prioritize the life of people over everything else several times before and we do it again.” In calling on the state government to fight the pandemic, the High Court asserted “with the collective efforts of the masses and the officials of the government we are extremely capable of driving this virus to the ground.”
Gujarat is not the sole state to grapple with public health infrastructure problems. Indeed, it is reflective of a national concern given the long-standing issues connected to the country’s public health system. The COVID-19 pandemic is a moment of reckoning – public health infrastructure was ill-prepared to handle this pandemic. Unless we act to upgrade it, at all tiers and at all levels, it will not be prepared for a next one.