Survivor Deaths Under-reported
As the peak of the second wave of Covid infections in Bhopal begins to pass, we are still waiting to find out the true extent of the tragedy it has wrought on Bhopal’s vulnerable survivor population. In the wake of the second wave, the chief medical officer of gas relief in Bhopal, Dr Ravi Verma, said 218 of the 933 recorded Covid deaths in Bhopal are 1984 survivors. If these figures were correct, deaths among survivors would make up 23% of the total in the city.
However, just as the state government has been consistently under-reporting the total death toll from coronavirus (reports from the ground suggests the true death toll is far beyond the official figure of 933), there is good reason to believe these figures are a significant misrepresentation of the true proportion of deaths among survivors. On 3 December last year, the day of the anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the state government reported that 102 of the 518 Covid fatalities recorded in the city were gas tragedy survivors. The survivor group The Bhopal Group for Information and Action, claimed at the time that the figure was at least 254. They said they had derived the number by visiting the homes of 450 of the 518 Covid fatalities.
The BGIA continued to gather data on survivor deaths. Activist Rachna Dhingra told the Indian media data gathered in March showed that 321 of the 650 Covid deaths in Bhopal were gas tragedy victims. “And this is only till March, so it doesn’t even include the second surge deaths. We collected copies of the gas peedit cards of those who died as evidence. The government is severely undercounting these deaths,” she told Indian news outlet ThePrint. If these figures are correct, the true proportion of deaths made up by survivors in the city stood at over 49% before the second wave hit. It will be sometime before we know the true number of people who have died in Bhopal during the second wave, or exactly how many of them were survivors of the disaster. What has become apparent is that the survivor population has once again been overlooked and left to endure this fresh tragedy, as they have already endured more than 35 years of hardship.
Lack of Vaccinations and Medical Care
Reports from Bhopal are that survivors have died of Covid after being turned away from The Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC), the government hospital designated solely to the care of gas survivors in the city. This was due not only to a lack of beds, but also to a lack of staff. After a mass exodus by staff from the hospital back in late 2019, many citing poor working conditions and inadequate patient care, the hospital has struggled to get back on its feet and is still chronically short of doctors. After a plan to turn the hospital into solely a Covid treatment centre in March of last year was overturned, the hospital was ordered to continue regular treatments for survivors alongside care for those survivors who contracted Covid. However, it has become increasingly clear that the hospital was unable to keep up with the demand for beds and treatments during the second wave, and many survivors were once again left with nowhere to turn.
Apart from a lack of access to critical care, the vulnerable survivor population was also overlooked when the Covid vaccination program was unrolled in Madhya Pradesh. Although health workers and hospital staff were vaccinated as a priority, it appears no priority was given to gas survivors, many of whom have long-term health issues and respiratory problems resulting from exposure to MIC. Although many will now have been vaccinated along with others in their age groups, the fact that priority was not given despite their heightened vulnerability shows the state’s indifference to their suffering continues today as it has for the past 36 years.