Death has been successfully converted into a lucrative business by parties involved in the death of patients, Corona or no Corona, in Kolkata and its suburbs. Either the ambulance services, or the crematoria administered by respective municipal bodies, or, the hospital attendants in charge of handling dead bodies are charging exorbitant rates to handle bodies released from different hospitals.

This is after the stories doing the rounds of the media about the sky-high charges levied by private hospitals for patients admitted for treatment in different hospitals.

This began with the sale of sanitizers, face masks and other paraphernalia being sold in the black market when medical shops ran short of supply in these items. This was followed by churning out exorbitant bills that sent the families of the dead into deep shock.

In fact, according to one report, after a patient’s family lodged a complaint with the West Bengal Clinical Establishment Regulatory Commission that the patient had been overcharged, the Commission directed the private hospital where she had been admitted to refund ₹1.4 lakh of the ₹1.84 lakh charged for Personal Protection Equipment. The hospital was charging ₹7,000 a day for the cost of PPEs used by the doctors against the cap of ₹1,000 fixed by the West Bengal government. Not all patients who have been overcharged have been able to file complaints and received refunds, however.

All this has been happening despite the presence of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 that made overcharging the public a punishable offence. Yet, a doctor who passed away of Covid 19 found his family slapped with a bill for Rs.18 lakhs which, upon an appeal by the family for reducing the fees resulted in a cut of Rs.3 lakhs which hardly made much of a difference to a family that cannot pay Rs.18 lakhs.

1-0-8 Emergency Response Service is a 24X7 emergency service for medical, police and fire emergencies. The service is available for the entire state of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Assam, Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala and 2 Union Territories Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu.

A few Indian states including West Bengal do not fall within this service and one wonders why the states that were excluded in the initial list did not take any steps to get included in this list which did not include them in the first list.

The 108 Emergency Ambulance Service is a 24x7 service, which anyone can avail by dialling the number 108 on their phone during the case of any emergency. It could be either a medical emergency, a fire emergency, or a crime being committed. Government of Madhya Pradesh, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, under National Rural Health Mission initiated Emergency Response Services. But this is not available in several states including West Bengal.

Even otherwise, the regular rate of ambulance service is around Rs.1000 per trip subject to distance. That is only half the story. Stories about of ambulance drivers discarding a discharged patient on the street as the family refused to pay up Rs.7000 from one hospital to another. A concerned doctor of the hospital from which the patient was discharged helped hurriedly organize an ambulance and the patient was shifted. A family member said that he had just paid the hospital discharge bill so did not have enough cash on him. Not all patients are that lucky.

Another patient died on the street while he was about to get into the ambulance because he did not have the strength to get onto the ambulance to get onto the ambulance. But no one came forward to help him and he died with his wife watching helplessly as she was also a senior citizen and could not do it alone.

The corpses of Covi-19 patients are not handed over to most families because of the fear that the pandemic will spread. The corpses are packed in transparent plastic sheets but family members who wish to see the face of their departed relative, the hospital attendants are reportedly charging somewhere between Rs.2500 and Rs.5000. One family complains that on 9th August, when a young member died, the family wished to see his face for one last time at the crematorium. The doms (those who burn the dead bodies) or, men pretending to be doms asked the family for Rs.51,000 from the family!

Three days following the above incident, a lady in Uluberia, a Kolkata suburb, a senior lady discharged from the hospital, was reached home in an ambulance. She passed away at home the following day. But the hospital had not mentioned her Covid – 19 status – negative or positive, in the death certificate. So a proper cremation could not take place. The family appealed to the corporation and the local police and the dead body was taken to the crematorium at 8.00 pm. But two young men wearing PPE who claimed they would cremate the body demanded Rs.10,000 from the daughter-in-law.

“We bargained a lot and the final price was decided at Rs.7000. We were forced to shell out the sum because otherwise, since we were not sure whether she had passed away due to Covid 19, we could not take the risk of keeping her body at home for another 12 hours or more.”

Several hearse drivers have been complaining that private persons are pretending to be doms and charging high prices for cremation of the dead. These young men are not employees of the corporation. An important official of the Howrah Municipal Corporation stated that he too had heard stories of young men pretending to be doms and charging money even for taking a body off the hearse for cremation.

In fact, Raja Mullick who heads the doms of Shibpur crematorium agreed that they do take money for the family to get a last glimpse of their dead. His statement is, “We consider it wrong for the family to take a last glimpse of a member who had died of Covid -19 and we are taking money to discourage this practice!”

The West Bengal Government has capped the maximum deposit money during admission of any patient at a private hospital to Rs.50,00 which, the government has later said will be reduced by a given percentage. But what difference will it make for those who find shelling out Rs.50,000 just as deposit money nearly impossible?

According to M.P. Nathanael, Inspector General of Police (Retd), Central Reserve Police Force, “Denying admission in hospitals, refusing to bury the dead in cemeteries, etc. need to be made punishable offences. The horror stories of this pandemic give us an opportunity to do so.”

In the meanwhile, Death has become a wonderful business for those who can extract money out of it.