The AMRI Tragedy: Beyond Expressing Sorrow
On 8th December 2011, a terrible fire broke out at the AMRI (Advanced Medicare & Research Institute Ltd) Dhakuria annexe building. Over ninety people choked to death, the majority patients, but also a few nurses, a few people who had tried to rescue the helpless patients, etc. People from all walks of life have come out in sorrow and anger. They have expressed condemnation.
But t is necessary to go beyond this, as the facts of the case emerge. Preliminary reports have revealed that the AMRI management did not have any fire safety measure in place. The lower basement, meant to serve solely as a car parking space, had instead become the dumping ground for all sorts of inflammable material. The fire department knew this but instead of enforcing a cleanup act, they had only issued a notice, whose last date had also gone by without any action being taken. Within the hospital, nobody remembers when the last fire drill was practised. The Calcutta Corporation and other relevant public institutions have repeatedly accepted expansions, from the small Niramoy Polyclinic which had to be “saved” by being turned into a private enterprise. As the days go by, it is clear that the government had given AMRI massive benefits, the overlooking of its fire safety rules being only one aspect. The ANRI had been leased at an extraordinarily low rate. There had been no rate revisions for all years since the original decisions. Meanwhile government share has been brought down to less than 2 percent.
There is ample evidence that profit maximization takes precedence at AMRI . The place now boasts of “super deluxe” and “deluxe” rooms where one pays thousands of rupees daily, including reportedly one room where the daily charge is Rs. 26000. Yet this expensive hospital, in order to increase profits, expanded by taking land from a slum, and building in such a way that yhe fire brigade would have difficulty if a crisis did occur.
It was this concern for wealth that had led to a very skewed concept of “security”. When residents of the locality, people who would never be admitted to AMRI because they simply do not earn in that league, saw the smoke and went out to help, the AMRI security decided to block them.
All this points to a simple conclusion which the bourgeois politicians and the bourgeois media are trying to obscure. This is not a matter of one bunch of corrupt doctors assisted by another bunch of corrupt politicians. There is something far more systemic. Health care, ever since the 1980s, has been turning into big, profitable business. Speciality hospitals, Public Private Partnerships, the massive entry of insurance in the medical sector, are all pointers. As capital constantly seeks new areas where it can move in, what was formerly considered a service has now become a money spinner. The focus is on the “bottom line”. So every means that leads to the possibility of increasing the profits are applied, including paying relatively small bribes to public institutions so they turn a blind eye when laws are flouted in the search for the extra profit.
The AMRI tragedy therefore must compel people to go beyond expressing sorrow at the callousness. The seeming hyper-activity of the government, the revocation of AMRI’s license, the arrest of top level figures, can create an impression that nuch is being done. Yet these are things that have been repeatedly done. Even after the Bhopal Gas Disaster, Warren Anderson was initially arrested. He went off to live a life of luxury in New York. In West Bengal, this knee-jerk reaction of springing into action and taking some influential members of the medical community into custody in order to quell the media frenzy is not new. One may remember that after a massive scandal was exposed in 2006 -- revealing that spurious diagnostic kits were supplied to blood banks across West Bengal causing transmission of deadly viruses to unsuspecting patients through contaminated blood transfusion -- the prominent owners of the kit manufacturer, Monozyme India Ltd, were also arrested by the then ruling Left-front government.
While most of the ill-fated citizens who contracted AIDS or Hepatitis viruses through tainted blood have already died, the criminal case against Monozyme is dragging on in a trial court in Kolkata five years later.
At the heart of such disasters is the profit drive. Unless health care is taken out of the hands of people for whom a hospital is simply capital’s route to produce more capital, there can be no check against such a recurrence. In other words, it is the privatisation of health care, not specific managers, that must be resisted.
Implement time-bound inquiry and speedy trialPunish the Directors as well as all others who were guilty
14 December 2011