The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The West Bengal health minister is sounding very relieved. The children in Murshidabad are dying of nothing other than influenza. At least, so says the oracle from Pune. And looking back to his own experience as a doctor — never mind if that was well over a decade ago — Mr Surjya Kanta Mishra seems to remember that influenza cannot be treated at all. Therefore, it must logically follow from Mr Mishra’s statement that the children did not die of neglect at all. Nothing was done to them because nothing could, or ought to, be done to those suffering from flu. This is self-defensiveness of a very low and dangerous kind, masquerading as ministerial and scientific expertise. Simultaneously, following the chief minister’s visit to Murshidabad, two health service doctors have been suspended for medical negligence. This combination of ignorant brazenness and arbitrary action will not surprise anybody acquainted with the West Bengal health department’s modus operandi.

First, it is now clear that West Bengal still depends on laboratories in Pune and Delhi for the most basic virological tests. This leads to unnecessary delays, often with fatal consequences. This was the case with SARS, and also seems to be the case with influenza. Second, suspending two doctors actually avoids looking at the systemic chaos in district-level healthcare. As the Indian Medical Association has pointed out, treating the sick children was virtually impossible without the most rudimentary supplies of such things as oxygen and paracetamol. Influenza may be untreatable, but there are ways of dealing with some of its symptoms, like high fever, breathing difficulty and attendant infections. District hospitals and health-centres lack such basic supplies, as they also lack the means of testing blood for malaria and other simple diseases. Third, the entire situation in Murshidabad has been politicized by every political party in the scene. The only public response to grievous misgovernance is therefore indistinguishable from political mud-slinging. Public health ceases to be a concern of civil society and becomes a purely bureaucratic or party matter. This leads not only to the disempowerment of the people who must avail themselves of these services, but also to an erosion of the government’s accountability to these people. When the people concerned are poor and illiterate, then any notion of accountability goes flying out of the window, clearing the way for pseudo-medical obfuscations from the likes of Mr Mishra.

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