NEGLIGENCE and neglect at healthcare centres, particularly at perennially cash-strapped public-sector hospitals, is an old story in Pakistan. Yet the tragedy that struck at Lahore’s Services Hospital on Thursday is simply horrifying. Reportedly, for some time a staff nurse at the facility’s nursery had been complaining to the administration about a short-circuit in the unit’s air-conditioner. On Thursday, sparks set off a fire that rapidly engulfed the ward in which 26 underweight and prematurely born infants were present. By the time rescuers took over seven babies had died and another five had been critically injured.
What the families of these children are going through is beyond imagination, and our heart goes out to them. For the hospital staff and administration, however, must be reserved the most scathing censure. Given that the malfunctioning air-conditioner had been brought to the administration’s attention, it beggars belief that it did nothing to remedy matters. Particularly given that this was a nursery for newborns, the administration should have prioritised steps to avert a potential disaster. There is an obvious need for any public facility to be equipped with basic safety equipment, especially healthcare centres where certain equipment renders the risk of fire more serious. The fire in the Services nursery, for example, was reportedly accelerated by the oxygen supplies to the incubators. But no fire extinguisher was available close by. Had there been one, perhaps some lives could have been saved with timely action. Yet even that remains a moot point given the reported behaviour of the nursery staff. Eyewitnesses say that as the fire broke out, nurses and doctors fled. Never mind these staffers’ betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath, if these reports are true then it is legitimate to ask what kind of people leave babies behind to burn.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has ordered an inquiry into the matter and it is to be hoped that this does not go the way of most such investigations, i.e. nowhere. The fact that this was an easily preventable tragedy makes the situation worse, and those responsible need to be held accountable. The staff reported to have fled the premises to save their own lives also need to be questioned. At a larger level, this should also serve as a wake-up call for the country in terms of the way the healthcare sector is run and funded. Many figures are bandied about illustrating that Pakistan’s healthcare spending is a tiny fraction of the GDP, and much is said about the pressure under which this sector operates. Behind the jargon, however, are suffering people, including vulnerable newborns.