Gorakhpur, India – Mohammad Zahid battled exhaustion to keep a manual pump pushing air into his five-year-old daughter but slowly the life went out of Khushi, one of dozens of children who died at a Gorakhpur hospital that ran out of oxygen.
While a major controversy has erupted in India over more than 60 deaths at the Baba Raghav Das Hospital, Zahid told AFP in an interview of grief and anger that he did not believe the truth would ever come out.
“Not everything that happened there is being reported,” the 34-year-old said, shaking his head in disbelief at official denials that lack of oxygen caused any of the deaths.
Khushi, whose name means ‘happiness’ in Hindi, was taken to Baba Raghav with a high fever that quickly worsened. Hospital doctors told the family it was encephalitis, which is endemic in the region.
She was one of about 30 children who died after oxygen supplies ran out. Allegations have been made that the state-run hospital had not paid its bills.
“We didn’t use the pumps for just two hours, as some reports suggest. We used them all through Friday,” he said, stood next to his son outside the family home in a rural zone of Gorakhpur. He held up a picture of Khushi.
Zahid said that he and a 17-year-old nephew took turns to use a manual pump in a desperate bid to keep the girl breathing.
“They told us to keep pressing to make sure my daughter keeps breathing.”
Search for the truth
“It was exhausting. Our hands were in agony, but we could not stop. We had not eaten before going to the hospital and we were tired with all the stress and standing there.
“I did not move from my daughter’s bedside from the time she was admitted until the doctors gave me the bad news.” Khushi was pronounced dead late Friday and buried the next day in line with Muslim rituals.
“An older man next to a one-year-old girl in the ward asked me to check if she was still breathing. She died only a few hours before my daughter,” Zahid said.
At least 64 children, some newborns, died over a six-day period last week at the hospital in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state.
Indian media have linked more than 30 of the deaths to a lack of oxygen on Thursday and Friday.
While the hospital superintendent has been suspended, authorities have insisted the lack of oxygen was not a cause of death.
“How can they say that a supply disruption did not have a role in the deaths,” said Zahid.
“My daughter could still move her body till the oxygen supply stopped. Her condition deteriorated as we used those manual air pumps,” he added.
State chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu priest from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, has vowed to punish anyone found to have been negligent. “He will not be spared at any cost,” Adityanath said after the visiting the hospital on Sunday.
The chief minister blamed the deaths on encephalitis – a mosquito-borne virus that every year ravages poorer, eastern Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with more than 200 million people.
But students hurled eggs and tomatoes at the home of the Uttar Pradesh health minister on Sunday. The opposition Congress party has said the children were victims of “murder”.
Zahid, who does odd-jobs at a local market, was typical of the mainly poor families who use the state-run hospital.
Most patients come from marginalised rural communities around Gorakhpur.
“Of course I would like to know what happened to my child. But will they tell us? They never do, and does it even matter as my daughter is dead” said Zahid.