Chennai: Between last hope and first wail, life hangs in

Ambulance vehicles with COVID-19 positive patient waiting at the Covid care centre of the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital in Chennai on Tuesday

CHENNAI: Crowds at government hospitals aren’t an unusual sight. But the scene on Tuesday at the city’s premier 3,800-bed Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital was something I have never seen before – not even when the city was hit by natural calamities.
Patients were struggling for breath and their relatives were crying for help. “My husband needs high flow oxygen, this is not enough,” cried a woman at around 1pm. After nearly 20 minutes, a stretcher moved the patient into the emergency room of tower III. Doctors told his wife that she should accompany him.
There were at least 15 ambulances parked inside the hospital. Other patients waited inside private cars, cabs and autorickshaws. Some just sat or lay down wherever they could. By 1.30pm, a hospital employee, who sat at the entrance and took down the patients’ names, clinical details and time of entry, asked the security guards to close the gates.
“There is no more space here. Please ask ambulance drivers to line them up on the road. We will let them in as soon as we clear beds,” he said. Within the next ten minutes there were four ambulances at the gate. “My wife is critical. I want doctors to see her,” said a man opening the doors of an ambulance. Inside was a woman in her mid-thirties. “Her oxygen level is dangerously low. Please let me in,” he said.
Some people complained that patients in private ambulances were given priority and those in 108 were being pushed behind. The cries were louder on the other side of the Covid tower block, where bodies were being moved into the mortuary. At least seven bodies, packed in body bags, were moved to the mortuary in less than an hour. Relatives crowded the mortuary counters for early release.
“Here, take this card,” a ward boy told a wailing relative. “Don’t bother waiting for the free hearse. Book this guy. I will ensure early release of the body,” he said. Most private hearses charged between ₹4000 and ₹18,000 to ferry bodies to different crematoriums. Desperate relatives paid whatever the ward boys and hearse services asked.
It reminded me of what a policeman posted at the hospital told me a couple of days ago: “The number of deaths that happen in Covid wards is a lot more than what you see in the press releases.”



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