There is no greater betrayal than when what people believe to be safe havens turn into killing fields. The large number of hospital fires being reported in the last couple of years in the country, taking victims at their most vulnerable, could well be a case of criminal negligence and apathy. At least four infants are reported to have died in Monday’s fire in the special newborn care unit of Kamla Nehru Children’s Hospital in Bhopal. Early November, 11 patients died in a fire that broke out at the COVID-19 ward in Ahmednagar , Maharashtra. In March this year, 10 people were killed in a fire that broke out in Sunrise Hospital, Mumbai . These are only the latest in a series of hospital fires that have, as per some estimates, led to the deaths of over 120 people, most of them COVID-19 patients. Several minor and major fires have been started in hospitals, the former causing damage to property and anxiety for patients, and their loved ones, while the latter proved to be deadly for patients but also for some hospital staff. In most of these cases, hospital staff also had to see to the immediate shifting of patients to other safer units.
The link that has been made out between rising hospital fires and the burden of COVID-19 cases is not artificial. Hospital administrators and forensic analyses have laid the cause for the historically high number of cases that hospitals have had to deal with. With the number of cases rising in the first and second waves of the pandemic, demand far exceeded capacity. Hospitals tried to expand their facilities to accommodate as many patients as possible, while there was scarcely any time for infrastructure expansion. While beds and mattresses could be marshalled at short notice, and oxygen cylinders, sometimes, with herculean effort, hospitals could not add extra power lines, or distribute the load with additional transformers or power units. Ventilators were also pushed into use 24 by 7, certainly not the norm before COVID-19, and with high power requirement for this, it naturally pressed existing infrastructure into overdrive. Single air conditioner units were also operating full time. These resulted in electrical short circuits, and possibly aided by the presence of flammable substances — alcohol-based sanitisers, high oxygen and PPE kits — sparks grew into full-scale fires. It is essential for hospitals that pulled more than their share of the weight during COVID-19 to not only do fire safety audits but also electrical audits, to ensure operational fitness, and specifically to ensure there are no fires. States may mandate it, or incentivise such a procedure in order to draw it up the priority list of smaller and medium-sized hospitals. Hospitals, after all, must remain healing zones, and to ensure that fire accidents are avoided, must be a non-negotiable requirement.