Money and power make it easy amid the spike in Covid-19 cases
With Covid-19 symptoms and breathing problems, 65-year-old Ranju Sheikh was sitting in front of triage at the coronavirus unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital since arriving there at noon on Tuesday. He had come from Jatrabari hoping to get admission and treatment.
His son Hira Sheikh bought an admission ticket but failed to get the attention of any hospital staff in an hour. Desperate, he attempted to meet the on-duty doctors but was denied access by the guard there. He was moving frantically holding the ticket in his hand.
It took him two more hours to manage the hospital staff, spending a few hundred taka. His father was finally given a bed at around 3pm, but by this time his condition had deteriorated.
“Now he cannot eat and has been given high-pressure oxygen support,” Hiru told Dhaka Tribune at around 7pm.
Ranju’s story is not an isolated incident. Rather, it has now become a regular phenomenon at DMCH and many other hospitals following the sudden spike in coronavirus infections.
Two Dhaka Tribune correspondents posted at the DMCH’s Covid-19 unit from Monday night till morning found that patients could get a hospital bed in two ways – lobbying or paying bribes. So influential people having strong links to powerful quarters had more advantage than general people, many of whom are not solvent.
This has become a rule no matter whether there is a heavy rush of patients or any bed/ICU is vacant. Even attendants need to pay the hospital staff some bribes in order to be able to meet on-duty doctors.
Take the case of Mainuddin Talukder, 60, a critically ill patient who came to DMCH at 11:45am on Monday from a private hospital in Dhanmondi as his family could not afford to continue his treatment cost there.
He hails from Sreenagar in Munshiganj. His son Mehedi Talukder told Dhaka Tribune that his father had been treated in the private hospital for 11 days.
“We contacted some [DMCH] hospital staff earlier. They asked us to come today [Monday night]. We just needed to pay some bribes,” he said, but regretted that none came forward on their arrival at the Covid-19 unit.
“One among the staff placed my father on a stretcher after 45 minutes of wait only when I paid him Tk500,” Mehedi said.
DMCH Director Brig Gen Nazmul Haque said that the hospital authorities had dismissed a number of staff on grounds of their demanding illegal money.
“We will take action if anybody demands speed money,” he said, claiming that on-duty doctors sent the Covid-19 suspects home if their condition was not found to be critical. “But the Covid-19 positive patients and those who need oxygen support are welcomed at the hospital.”
DMCH has two Covid-19 units. One of them is located in the new building consisting of wards 601, 602, 701, 702, 801, 802, 901 and 902. The other unit is set up in the now-defunct burns unit building for critical internal patients of surgery, gynaecology and child units who have tested positive for the deadly coronavirus.
Of the 2,600 beds at DMCH, 780 have now been dedicated to the Covid-19 patients. The number of dedicated ICUs is 20, according to the hospital director.
“All the ICU beds are occupied and we are maintaining an order for the critical patients – we admit those who need ICU support as soon as a seat is vacant,” Brig Gen Nazmul said, adding that many of the general beds for Covid-19 patients remained empty.
But an official at the ticket counter said that no seat was vacant between 11:30am and 1pm when a Dhaka Tribune reporter was posted there.
At least three Covid-19 patients and suspected ones were told from the hospital triage that they could wait but it would be better if they returned home.
At 9pm Monday, an ambulance came with a 67-year-old woman wearing an oxygen mask. Her son and daughter were running hither and thither to have her admitted as soon as possible.
“We were taking care of her at home for three days due to her fever. I tried to manage a seat at a few hospitals for several days but failed. Now I feel lucky because I could finally manage a seat here though it’s already night,” her daughter Azmeri Sultana said.
“We were at Shomorita Hospital only for three hours and then I got confirmation from here. It was an emergency as my mother’s oxygen level is very low. We got the seat easily and did not have to pay any extra money to anyone to complete the procedures.
Between 9:30pm and 9:45pm, a Covid-19 suspect aged around 60 was sitting on a chair, looking gloomy. He has 90% lung infection and has also been suffering from blood cancer.
One of his grandsons said: “We are waiting here for the formal procedures and hoping that we will get a seat as we know people here.”
Another 30-year-old female patient who came from Naogaon with her relatives when it was almost 9:45pm also managed a seat for herself within 45 minutes, though they did not know anyone at the hospital. But they had to pay bribes at several key points to manage the seat.
Two staffers of a ward told Dhaka Tribune, asking not to be named, that everything was possible here “if you have money and power.”
At Mugda Hospital
The situation in the other large Covid-19 treatment hospital was similar.
With severe breathing difficulty, Mohammad Ripon arrived at Mugda Medical College Hospital at 8:45pm Monday on an ambulance from Brahmanbaria. He got admitted after an hour-long agonizing wait but could not be given oxygen because of a shortage of masks.
His relatives had to buy a mask from a nearby pharmacy. Ripon, a 38-year old expatriate from Saudi Arabia, was given oxygen at around 10pm.
Ripon came to Bangladesh two months ago and was scheduled to take off yesterday but he contracted the deadly virus on Saturday.
“I managed the seat before arriving here,” Shilpi, a relative of Ripon, told the Dhaka Tribune correspondent, who was posted there from 9:15pm to 11:15pm on Monday night.
All the general and ICU beds at the hospital are filled up and the staff maintain a list where 22 patients are waiting for an ICU bed. Wishing anonymity, a staffer said that 40 out of 48 ICU beds were “unofficially reserved” for patients who would go there with strong references.
Taking extra money for hospital passes is another avenue of corruption.
Different picture at Suhrawardy Hospital
At 9:15pm, Kulsum Begum in her mid-60s arrived at Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital with severe breathing problems. An on-duty nurse found her oxygen level to be at 81, much lower than the normal parameter. Her relatives lifted her on a stretcher and carried her to the Covid-19 isolation centre on the first floor.
She was lucky to find a bed. A patient was discharged half-an-hour before her arrival. With her admission, all the 23 beds of the isolation ward got occupied.
Kulsum had no Covid-19 test certificate, yet she got admitted as she had several symptoms, including low oxygen-level. Four days earlier, she was first admitted at Faridpur Sadar Hospital with diarrhoea and later was referred to the DMCH, where no seat could be found.
Her son Lutfor Rahman hoped that she would get treatment here.
With the number of Covid-19 infections rising fast, the hospital authorities installed four extra oxygen ventilation outside the isolation centre.
Only a couple of normal beds, out of the total 250, remained vacant while all the 10 ICUs were occupied on Monday night.
“We are going to turn another 50-capacity ward into a Covid-19 ward in the next few days to accommodate the rising number of patients,” said Dr Md Khalilur Rahman, the hospital director, adding that he himself had received at least 20 phone calls from people seeking admission and could entertain only a few.