At least 10 COVID patients were asphyxiated when a makeshift hospital in Vijayawada caught fire on Sunday. More than 20 other patients and six medical personnel were reportedly present in the hotel-turned COVID-care facility when a short circuit in the building’s air-conditioning unit flared into a blaze. Andhra Pradesh’s health minister A K Krishna Srinivas has blamed Ramesh Hospital, which had rented the hotel, for failing to check if the temporary facility adhered to fire safety norms. He has accused private hospitals of taking “advantage of people’s fears of the virus and their reluctance to take treatment at government hospitals by charging exorbitant fees in the name of good treatment”. He has a point. But the Vijayawada blaze also frames the failure of the state in not using the lockdown period to mobilise amenities for COVID patients. It’s evident that safety concerns were given short shrift in the scramble for standby arrangements, after Andhra Pradesh’s COVID caseload began to increase.
It is no rocket science that, with their breathing capacity compromised by the viral attack, COVID patients are particularly vulnerable to any incident that affects their oxygen intake — exposure to smoke that contains carbon monoxide could have fatal consequences for them. Some countries have issued fire safety guidelines in the aftermath of the pandemic. But it’s unfortunate that in India, where innumerable buildings are tinderboxes — the country accounts for nearly a fifth of the serious fire accidents in the world according to the Global Disease Burden Study 2017 — no special measure or awareness campaign was initiated to obviate fire hazards during the health crisis. Accidents in COVID-care facilities have followed a playbook made familiar by past instances of fires in hotels, coaching centres, cinema halls and hospitals — authorities reacting too late to violations of safety protocols. Last week, for instance, a blaze swept through an Ahmedabad hospital suffocating at least eight COVID patients to death — the hospital, reportedly, did not have a fire safety certificate. Similarly, in the FIR lodged after the Vijayawada tragedy, the area’s Mandal Revenue Officer is reported to have alleged that the staff of both the hospital and hotel knew about the fire hazards in the makeshift facility, and yet did not bother to conduct repairs.
After the tragedies in Ahmedabad and Vijayawada, the chief ministers of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh have asked fire safety personnel to conduct safety audits of COVID-care facilities. Other states should follow suit. But the ripples caused by fire accidents in the country usually do not take long to die down. It’s high time, therefore, that measures are taken to root out the culture of cutting corners on safety.
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