More than 150 children have died in an epidemic in Bihar—the killer diseases is cryptically referred to as AES. Not long ago, the same infection was called Japanese Encephalitis. It seems that the government and the media have decided to drop the prefix so as not to blame friendly Japan for our own failings. The sleight of hand does not end here. ‘E’ for encephalitis is cushioned between (to soften the blow) ‘A’ for acute and ‘S’ for syndrome. Acute is an extreme form of a malady and syndrome, as the dictionary defines it, is a complex mix of symptoms that combine to create a crisis. All this is no consolation to the bereaved families. The bitter and cruel truth is that the children in poor families are dying by the dozen, suffering painfully before their promising lives are extinguished.
What makes the situation particularly tragic is that it is at this time that Ayushman Bharat is being rolled out with great fanfare. What is distressing is that the central government does not seem to be particularly alarmed and has taken no steps to come to the rescue of the suffering families. Part of the reason appeared to be that the state concerned is Bihar where the NDA ally is in power. The AES fiasco has exposed the weakness, if not the abject failure, of the Nitish Kumar government. All his clams of providing good governance suddenly seem to ring hollow.
There was a time not long ago when the stock of ‘Sushasan Babu’ was riding high. He had rescued Bihar from Lalu Yadav’s Jungle Raj and given priority to development. It must be conceded that soon some improvements were visible on ground. Roads were improving, electricity supply was regular and doctors resumed treating patients in government hospitals. But then the Bihar Chief Minister started dreaming of a national role. He parted company with the BJP and started projecting himself as defender of minorities and Dalits. Without thinking through prohibition was hastily imposed resulting in bootlegging and deaths by hootch.
Since then Nitish’s JDU has patched up with the BJP but somewhere along the way the CM seems to have lost the plot. The latest hiccup was formation of the NDA government after Narendra Modi’s reelection. The NDA continues to sulk at not having given what it wanted in the allocation of Cabinet berths. Nitish continues to make noises about reservations he has about the triple talaq issue and the Uniform Civil Code. It is difficult to get over the feeling that the Bihar government is not being criticised or held accountable for the lost of lives due to ASE so as not to ruffle more feathers.
It is time that we faced the ground reality. Doctors who have independently assessed the situation are of the view that almost all the deaths are of children belonging to poor families, under the age of 10, who are brought to the hospital suffering from severe malnutrition. There is no question that the immunity in these kids is severely impaired due to malnutrition. The parents are in no position to get them to the hospital in time. There have also been disturbing reports of doctors absent from the hospital and ambulances standing idle.
The state government can take the easy way out and start suspending doctors for negligence or incompetence. A corruption scandal may also be unearthed to distract us. All this gives us a strong sense of déja vu. A couple of years ago, Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh had become notorious for encephalitis deaths. Doctors had turned from heroes to villains overnight. Thank God, that this year UP seems to have rid itself of this horror. The question is, for how long?
Time to turn our gaze beyond UP and Bihar now. A recent report ranks Kerala at the top in the context of providing healthcare for its people. It can’t be denied that the state dealt with the dangerous Zika virus in an exemplary manner and contained the terrifying infection in time. The same list places UP at the bottom. Those suffering from the blight of AES in Bihar may wonder where does their state figure?
Recently, Mamata Banerjee had a show down with government doctors in West Bengal and the protest against her high-handedness took an ugly turn. Doctors struck work and protesters were mercilessly beaten up by police.
Doctors in government hospitals in the national capital also went on strike in sympathy with their colleagues. Patients suffered. The problem arises because India even 70 years after independence has two systems of healthcare (like schooling)—one for the rich and the other for poor. The poor have no other option but to seek relief from government hospitals. The rich and powerful are treated at state-of-the-art private sector hospitals. It is this cancer that is causing countless deaths of the helpless. This is what needs to be cured before all else.