COVID-19 SPECIAL

Healthcare workers shunned in India amid coronavirus pandemic

Cases of harassment, ostracism continue to surface despite warning by PM Modi

Staff from a medical college collecting swabs from people last week to test for the coronavirus at a walk-in sample kiosk in India's southern state of Kerala. Healthcare workers, who are on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19, increasingly
Staff from a medical college collecting swabs from people last week to test for the coronavirus at a walk-in sample kiosk in India's southern state of Kerala. Healthcare workers, who are on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19, increasingly face ostracism and violence in India.PHOTO: REUTERS

Two women doctors in New Delhi, India's capital city, were buying fruits at their local fruit stall when a 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, explaining that they were practising social distancing and taking all the precautions, he allegedly assaulted them and fled.

The police arrested the man last Thursday, a day after the incident. The charges against him include sexual assault and criminal intimidation.

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 on the front lines 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 continue to surface.

Landlords have reportedly told healthcare workers to move out, while neighbours and members of the community ostracise them.

There has also 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".

Dr Ravi Ranjan Kumar Raman, president of the junior doctors' association at Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in Bihar state, said: "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?"

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, as the federal system gives the 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; the World Health Organisation recommends one doctor for 1,000 people.

Singapore had 2.4 doctors for every 1,000 residents in 2018, according to the Ministry of Health's website.

 
 

In India, like elsewhere, the pandemic is seen to have put extra pressure on an already overburdened health system.

India currently has 8,504 coronavirus cases and 289 deaths.

Doctors and healthcare workers have maintained that there is a shortage of personal protective equipment, while the government claims that the shortage is easing.

Indian media reports have given estimates of 90 to 200 healthcare workers infected by Covid-19.

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

"The government has taken action and culprits have been punished," said Mr Manu Gautam, president of doctors' advocacy group United Resident and Doctors Association of India.

"We didn't have to demand government action."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2020, with the headline 'Healthcare workers shunned in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe