Unpaid dues for oxygen supply at a government hospital in India allegedly caused the deaths of at least 60 Indian children over a five-day period last week.
A private contractor supplying oxygen cylinders to the Baba Raghav Das Medical College reportedly halted when the dues of about Rs 70 lakh ($110,000) were left unpaid, according to the BBC.
While Uttar Pradesh state officials confirmed that the supply had indeed been disrupted in the public hospital located in Gorakhpur district, it refused to admit that the loss of oxygen tanks was the cause of the deaths, claiming that the patients died of “various medical reasons and illnesses”.
Local media, however, noted that when the oxygen supply was cut, panic quickly spread at the hospital with relatives struggling to keep the patients alive by helping the staff use manual breathing bags
Reports have also noted that a significant number of the patients were at the neonatal unit or under treatment for encephalitis. Baba Raghav Das hospital confirmed that 30 of the total deaths happened between Thursday and Friday alone.
In a public statement, district magistrate Rajeev Rautela has called for an investigation into the deaths, Hindustan Times reported.
“We have been told that BRD witnessed disturbance in liquid oxygen supply since last night as firm withdrew supply owing to non-payment,” he was quoted as saying.
“The BRD principal told us that out of an outstanding of Rs 70 lakh, Rs 35 lakh ($55,000) was paid to the Lucknow-based firm. But it denied receiving the money.”
The tragic incident sparked massive outrage from the public, with some describing it as a “massacre”. Some state officials have also called for the resignation of incumbent state health minister Siddharth Nath Singh, demanding to provide compensation of Rs 20 lakh to each of the families who lost a child from the incident.
Observers have noted that the tragedy highlighted India’s underfunded public health system which has continued to suffer not only from a shortage of staff and clinics but also poor medical equipment in public hospitals.
Oxygen supplier Pushpa Sales stated that they had notified the hospital authorities before the supply was cut. The firm also pointed out that the contract that promises arrears would not be more than Rs 10 lakh ($15,600). The company also cut the hospital’s oxygen supply in April of last year after it failed to pay Rs 50 lakh ($78,000) in arrears.