Healthcare workers in India face stigma amid fight against coronavirus

A health worker conducts temperature checks on people entering a hospital in New Delhi on April 10, 2020.
A health worker conducts temperature checks on people entering a hospital in New Delhi on April 10, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Two women doctors in Delhi, India's capital city, were buying fruits at their local fruit stall when a local resident accosted them, accusing them of spreading Covid 19.

The man asked the women, who work at Safdarjung Hospital, to stay away from the fruit stall and other shops, saying doctors were bringing the infection from the hospital.

When the women objected, saying they were practising social distancing and were taking all the precautions, he allegedly assaulted them and fled.

The police arrested the man a day after the incident last Thursday (April 9) and charged him with sexual assault and criminal intimidation, among other charges.

Still the incident has unnerved medical staff at the hospital where the doctors work.

"This was a most disheartening response from the public. Look at this incident. We are all risking our lives for the public and they are treating us like untouchables," said Dr Manish Kumar, president of the resident doctors' association at Safdarjung Hospital.

"What can be more disheartening than this, beating doctors?"

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are at the front line of the war against Covid-19 across the world.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned against any mistreatment of front-line workers but incidents of harassment and ostracism have continued to surface.

Landlords have reportedly told healthcare workers to move out, with neighbours and members of the community ostracising them. There has been at least one incident of a mob attack - just weeks after the entire country clapped and banged utensils for front-line workers.

The Federation of Resident Doctors Association, a doctors' body, has written to Home Minister Amit Shah seeking protection for healthcare workers, saying these were "not isolated incidents, rather parts of the long chain of incidents of violence against doctors".


"We are having a lot of problems. We are feeling it from neighbours and others in the community. You want good treatment in hospitals but you are avoiding us in the community?" asked Dr Ravi Ranjan Kumar Raman, president of the junior doctors' association at Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in the state of Bihar.

He, too, has received reports of doctors and nurses facing ostracism and evictions.

"We feel bad but what to do? We are facing so many problems. There is also tension in the family on what will happen because we are working with Covid patients."

India's healthcare system is already overburdened. Health infrastructure has no uniformity across states, where the federal system gives states power to deal with issues related to health.

There is also a shortage of healthcare workers, particularly doctors. According to government statistics, there is one doctor for every 1,445 Indians as opposed to the World Health Organisation's prescription of one doctor for 1,000 people. Singapore had 2.4 doctors for every 1,000 residents in 2018, according to Singapore Ministry of Health's website.

In India, like elsewhere, the coronavirus pandemic is seen to have put extra pressure on an already overburdened health system. Doctors and health care workers have maintained that there is a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), while the government claims that the shortage is easing.

Doctors said that one upside is that the authorities have taken cases against doctors and healthcare workers seriously, with prompt action.

In the city of Surat, in the western state of Gujarat, a couple identified as Bhavna and Chetan Mehta were detained by the police and had to issue a written apology for harassing their next-door neighbour - a doctor.

The video of the couple abusing Dr Sanjibani Panigrahi, who was also asked by other neighbours to move out of her flat since she was treating Covid patients, went viral on social media.

Mr Manu Gautam, president of doctors advocacy group United Resident and Doctors Association of India, said timely action against those targeting doctors and other healthcare workers is necessary.


"The government has taken action and culprits have been punished. We didn't have to demand government action."

Still front-line workers expect to come under increasing pressure as the number of cases increase in India, which currently has 7,477 cases with 239 deaths.

A doctor, who only gave his name as Dr Gaur, has been pulling 12-hour shifts at a public hospital in Delhi where the Covid-19 patient load is increasing and he sees upwards of 20 patients during one shift.

"The number of patients are going up. We are gearing up for increased numbers."

When he reaches home he takes a shower with hot water even as outside temperatures are starting to touch 35 deg C.

"It's my biggest worry. I hope I don't infect any of my family members."