Covid-19 in Gujarat: High Court uses Titanic metaphor to stress on need for collective response

Rutam Vora Ahmedabad | Updated on May 24, 2020

AMC health staff check with the thermometer a labourer during the lockdown in Ahmedabad.   -  Vijay Soneji

Asks private hospitals to refrain from profiteering; issues directions to State for an effective control

In a rare instance, the Gujarat High Court brought up a real-life incidence - the foundering of Titanic ship in April 1912 - to stress upon the need for the governments and society to collectively respond to the distress amid the prevailing global pandemic of Covid-19.

Passing the judgement in its suo-moto petition against the Gujarat government on Friday, the High Court, citing the Titanic example, underscored the need for an unshaken determination to help "most vulnerable" in the "unprecedented times of chaos, uncertainty and extreme stress." There could be numerous excuses to run away from the responsibility to help a neighbour. "But whoever can find it in their hearts to rise above all these frivolous excuses will always be remembered fondly in history," the bench of Justices JB Pardiwala and Ilesh J Vora said in their order.

They maintained that the tragic saga of the Titanic taught us that our fate is uncertain, governed by the powerful forces of nature. "The crashing of the Titanic was inevitable, but evitable was the loss of the human lives. It is believed that if the other two ships had responded in time, all people on board the Titanic could have been saved. We face a similar tragedy today, in the form of a global pandemic caused by a contagious virus we barely have any power over. What we do have power over is ourselves," the bench said.

The comments from the Court came at a time, when the Gujarat government is facing flack from all corners of the society for its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. The State has seen sharp surge in cases with highest mortality rate in the country.

As on Saturday, Gujarat has reported total 13,669 Covid-19 cases of which 6,671 are active and 829 deaths. Ahmedabad city alone has 70 per cent of the State's total cases. City's Civil Hospital has earned a dubious distinction of being a 'graveyard' for Covid patients with 377 deaths (about half of State total) happening in this State-run hospital.

The court termed it "as good as dungeon. May be even worst then a dungeon" for "extremely bad" state of affairs at one of the largest public hospitals in the country. Referring to State Health Minister, who is also the deputy chief minister, Nitin Patel and Health Secretary Jayanti Ravi, the High Court desired to know how many times did they visit the Civil Hospital for keeping a watch, to interact or take stock of the situation on ground? "Whether they have any idea about the problems faced by patients, doctors, nursing staff and other employees? Is the State Government aware of the hard fact that the patients at the Civil Hospital are dying because of lack of adequate number of ventilators?" the High Court raised serious questions about the seriousness of State administration in tackling the pandemic.

While government hospitals fared poor in performance, the court asked the private and corporate hospitals to admit Covid-19 patients and refrain from profiteering in the times of crisis. "The foremost reason for their (private hospitals') existence is to treat sick patients and it would be utterly shameful on their part to shy away from this responsibility at this point in time, when the country and its people need them the most. Profiting off a poor man’s health can be considered morally criminal," the court said.

It stated that if the private hospitals continue to have this indignant and apathetic attitude in this time of crisis then lives which could have been easily saved will be lost. In times of a crisis human lives outweigh everything, especially money, it said.

"As the situation in Gujarat escalates, it is time for the private hospitals to step into perform their primary function of savings lives. At least in times like these when men and women and children are dying alone, we expect the private hospitals to be the giver of life and not the harbinger of death," the bench said passing an order to the State government to initiate appropriate legal proceedings against all those private / corporate hospitals who are not willing to treat Covid-19 patients.

It was noticed that 23 private hospitals had inked memoranda of understanding (MoU) with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) to treat Covid-19 patients, but several corporate hospitals such as Apollo Hospital at two locations, Zydus Hospital, KD Hospital, Asia Columbia, Global Hospital, UN Mehta Hospital remained out of the list. The High Court asked the State to initiate talks with these hospitals for providing treatment to Covid-19 patients.

There were also, allegations on the government for capping the tests, for which the State representative had argued before the court saying that "more tests may lead to 70 per cent of the population testing positive for Covid, thereby leading to fear psychosis" in the public. The High Court dismissed this argument saying, it "should not be a ground to refuse or restrict the testing" and suggested the government to make wide publicity and awareness to bust the fear and make the people alert and issued several directions for better facilities for Covid-19 patients.

While acknowledging the good work done by on-ground administrators, corona warriors like healthcare workers, police, volunteers, philanthropists, the bench lauded the "commendable" work by senior IAS Dr Rajiv Gupta and his team, AMC Commissioner Mukesh Kumar and Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation chief S J Haider for on ground operations.

"What we require most in times like these is resilient leadership...In times like these, the emotional intelligence is critical... In this mentally disturbing time of isolation and social distancing, it is the encouraging and motivating messages of their leaders that can keep morale high behind closed doors," the bench said adding that using emotional intelligence strategically, we can skillfully prepare our people for the worse scenarios without having them lose heart.

"It is essential that the leaders realise that it is only them, who hold a position of authority and have built a place of trust in the hearts of the people. Hence, it is only them who need to come forward and adequately deal with the complex anxieties of people and provide them with a sense of physiological security."

Using the Titanic metaphor, the bench stated that when it was sinking on April 15, 1912, there were three ships close-by. Of these ships, only one -The Carpathia - from the farthest location responded, rushed for help and saved 705 lives from freezing to death in the water.

"It is believed that if the other two ships (which were nearer) had responded in time, all people on board Titanic could have been saved. We face a similar tragedy today, in the form of a global pandemic caused by a contagious virus we barely have any power over. What we do have power over is ourselves." "We all should become the “Carpathia”.

Published on May 24, 2020

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