TIVAOUANE, Senegal (Reuters) – Three weeks ago, Ramata Gueye died after giving birth to a son, Mohamed, seven months into her pregnancy. On Thursday, her bereaved husband El Hadj Gueye learnt that Mohamed was one of 11 babies killed by a fire in a hospital neonatal ward.
The couple had been trying for a baby for seven years, said Moustapha Cisse, a cousin of the father, who was among distraught family members of the dead infants gathered in front of the hospital in the Senegalese town of Tivaouane.
“It is heartbreaking to see him lose his wife and now his child,” said Cisse. “I can’t even look him in the eyes. If he had other children, maybe, but it was his only child.”
A short circuit caused the fire late on Wednesday and it spread in less than five minutes, Tivaouane Mayor Diop Sy said on RFM radio. He said two nurses who escaped had not been able to save the babies in their incubators, all of whom died.
With the government facing mounting criticism over the latest in a series of deadly hospital incidents, President Macky Sall sacked his health minister, Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr.
The decree announcing the sacking, read on national television, did not specify a reason for the president’s decision.
Sall also declared three days of national mourning. His office said he would cut short his trip to an African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea to return to Senegal on Friday. Sall is the acting president of the AU.
STATE OF HOSPITALS
Four babies died in a hospital fire in the northern town of Linguere last year, and a woman and her unborn baby died in April after a hospital denied her a Caesarean section during a protracted labour.
“Is it God’s plan or is it just that Senegal’s hospitals are failing? We need to put this question to the government,” said Cisse.
The opposition coalition Yewwi Askan Wi called for “all necessary measures to be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again in our country.”
Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Dione said Sall had ordered an investigation into the fire as well as an audit of neonatal units nationwide.
Public health experts have warned that many underfunded, understaffed African hospitals had been stretched beyond their capacities by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving them unable to maintain acceptable safety standards.
Amadou Kanar Diop, a risk and security expert who inspected the unit, said the walls were charred and staff on duty appeared to have been overwhelmed.
“It can be seen that they used several canisters of fire extinguishers,” he told Reuters.
Tivaouane, located about 120 km (75 miles) east of the capital Dakar, is a busy road transport hub and holy city that attracts Muslim pilgrims from all over the West African country.
Diali Kaba, whose two-week-old daughter was in the neonatal ward, was awakened early on Thursday by her mother, who had heard news of the fire.
The two women rushed to the hospital together and Kaba was allowed in to find out if her child was among the victims, while her mother waited anxiously outside.
A few minutes later, Kaba emerged in tears. Her baby girl was among the dead. The two women embraced, both weeping, until Kaba was helped into a car and driven home to grieve.
(Reporting by Bate Felix and Ngouda Dione in Tivaouane, Senegal; Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Tivaouane; Writing by Estelle Shirbon and Aaron Ross; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Bernadette Baum and Matthew Lewis)