Despite stories of this kind being well known to those who run our health services not one government, either at the Centre or in our States, has attempted to build affordable rental accommodation near major hospitals. Not even big private hospitals, run by charitable trusts, have such accommodation, and it is hard to understand why. Surely someone prepared to invest crores of rupees in a hospital can invest a few lakhs more on a hostel?
If public healthcare in our cities is hopelessly inadequate, it is abysmal in rural India. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), a vast majority of Indians spend 70 per cent of their income on medical bills compared to 30 per cent in a country like Sri Lanka.
This is because public healthcare is so bad that even the poorest Indians are forced to rely on private services. This forces them into debt and forces them to ignore even serious illnesses if they happen to daughters and not sons. Despite this widespread reluctance to pay medical bills for a girl child, it is estimated by the WHO that 3.2 per cent Indians are pushed below the poverty line every year.
These are shameful statistics and it is even more shameful that most Health Ministers do no more than pay lip service in times of crisis. When there was an encephalitis epidemic in Uttar Pradesh that killed nearly 500 children, the Union Health Minister was jolted into action and made a few heavily publicised visits to hospitals.
But, more recently, when babies started dying for no reason in a Kolkata hospital, Ghulam Nabi Azad chose to stay away and keep his mouth shut. Why? Could it be because Mamata Bannerji is an ally at the Centre and Mayawati is not?
It would not be fair if we did not say at this point that the media is almost as responsible for the horrific state of our public healthcare as government is. There are now more than 300 hyperactive news channels in India but they are so busy with ‘breaking news’ that they rarely cover the chronic disease that afflicts our health services except when there is a crisis.
When babies start to die, some little novice of a reporter is sent off to stand outside the hospital and file a hasty report and then the story is allowed to die in the face of other 'breaking news'. This is sad because if there were regular stories on the appalling state of our hospitals and rural health centres, there is no doubt at all in my mind that things would improve.
What makes the shameful state of public health services less acceptable today than ever before is because today India has private hospitals of such a high quality that people come from distant lands to avail of their services. Private healthcare at the top has improved so much in the past two decades that our political leaders who regularly raced off to the United States for medical treatment no longer do so.
Sonia Gandhi is perhaps an intriguing exception, but, let's face it, she is a foreigner. Anyway, now that her own health is frail, will she at least now pay some attention to the fact that her government has done nothing to come up with a new health policy? Unless this happens, the crisis in public healthcare will continue to grow.