In Retrospect

We failed them

We as a civilised society must take stock of the shameful incidences of healthcare workers and doctors being ostracised and assaulted by those they work to save and protect

Crises show us who we really are and what the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare is how animalistic human nature can really be. While there have been heartwarming stories of how people have come together to help each other in times of this unprecedented public health emergency, the innumerable reports of violence against doctors and healthcare workers fighting the good fight on the frontlines must be cause for us to introspect and determine who we are as a society and who we want to be when we finally come out of this.

Starting from outright violence against healthcare workers tracing contacts to the basic denial of dignity to doctors and nurses who lost their lives in this battle, the Indian population now has to confront what it has delivered to these workers who while aware that infection was an occupational hazard; never signed up for violence, ostracisation or stigmatisation.

So far, hundreds of doctors and healthcare workers have tested positive for COVID-19 after their contact with patients and the only reasonable assumption is that hundreds, if not thousands more will get infected if they are not provided with the appropriate protective gear. If anybody continues their work in full knowledge of this fact — it is the doctors and healthcare workers themselves.

Doctors in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and many other cities have said that the moment they realise they are on COVID-19 duty, they take it as a certainty that they will get infected, despite which they go about doing their duties. One doctor from Kolkata said that even if doctors do not work specifically in COVID wards, they have a higher risk of exposure just by working in hospitals where suspects are brought in for tests.

And despite this, they continue — not because it is an honour but simply because it is an occupational hazard that they knew they were signing up for the moment they started practising their profession. What they did not sign up for is violence and assault.

"Humanity is dead and it needs resuscitation"

Trying to dig the ground to be able to bury his best friend, Dr Pradeep felt just that. In Chennai, when Dr Simon Hercules, Managing Director of New Hope Hospital died after contracting COVID-19, his friends and family had organised a burial, first at a burial ground near TB Chatram but had to divert the hearse as they heard reports of hundreds of locals gathering there — in protest. They had heard absolutely false and misleading rumours that burying bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients could result in the spread of the infection.

However, by the time Dr Simon's family and friends, which included Dr Pradeep reached Velangadu cemetery, hundreds had gathered there as well - instigated by similar rumours. In fact, the mob — armed with sticks and stones — started beating on the ambulance carrying Dr Simon's body, badly injuring two drivers as corporation officials, friends snd family had to abandon the body to run for their lives. By then, only six feet of Dr Simon's grave was dug by corporation officials.

As Dr Pradeep recounted the horror, he said that they returned to the burial ground around 11:00 pm that night and somehow managed to dig two more feet into the ground and buried their friend with their own hands. A grave is usually dug at least 12 feet into the ground.

What about the law?

While Dr Simon's case was the match that lit the fire for the administration to finally bring in legislation to protect doctors and healthcare workers, this is not the first time doctors have had to face violence in the line of duty. Even as the COVID-19 outbreak in India was catching on, there were countless reports of healthcare workers across the country being assaulted and stopped from doing their duties — which they are doing by putting their and the lives of their families at high risk.

For instance, there were multiple cases of healthcare workers and officials being assaulted by residents while they were on contact tracing duties in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Similar stories have emerged from many areas in Mumbai. And while the Indian Medical Association had called for a two-day protest against the spate of violence against doctors in times of COVID-19, they were convinced by the Home Ministry to stand down following which the Centre brought in tough legislation through an emergency ordinance.

However, this call for a Central law to protect doctors against violence has been a call of the Indian Medical Association for a quite a while now. The issue also came up last year when doctors at a government hospital were attacked in Kolkata by family members of a patient, who believed that their loved one was not being treated correctly.

Not just violence

And while violent attacks and assault against healthcare workers have become uncomfortably frequent in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, there is another monster that the frontline warriors in this battle are having to deal with on a regular basis - stigmatisation and ostracism from the society at large. Even when the crisis began, Air India crew who were returning from rescue trips across the world were ostracised by society members in Delhi and other metro cities.

And significantly, vigilante Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) across the nation have led this drive of stigmatisation — be it of flight crews working rescue missions or doctors and healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. Many doctors in Delhi have said that it is easy for society members to identify them by their lab coats and stethoscopes and then either discriminate against them or ask them to leave the society or both.

In one such case in Delhi, one doctor first faced discrimination from neighbours, then her electricity was cut off and so was her water supply. Eventually, neighbours started picking fights with her over trivial matters until one day they surrounded her and asked her to leave the housing society for fear that she might infect everyone. Fortunately, the police intervened before the society could evict her.

And this, by no means, is an isolated incident. There have been several reports of nurses, doctors, and other healthcare staff in cities being harassed, discriminated against and ostracised as they continue to deal with the pressure of having to work in high-risk environments. Several sociologists have pointed out that many feel the need to ostracise such workers as they themselves fear ostracism if they are infected.

So what does it take for us as a society to get to a point where we are unable to recognise who the most important ones fighting this crisis on the frontlines are. It would be naive or ignorant, to say the least, that the people who are taking part in such stigmatisation and violence are not aware of the role doctors and healthcare professionals play in the fight against COVID-19. Maybe some are genuinely afraid that they will be forcefully taken away from their families and put in quarantine centres. Nevertheless, how does it justify their actions?

At the end of the day, doctors are as human and just as Dr Pradeep put it, they are no less prone to bleeding and hurting. And amid all of this, there is a serious question that we must ask of ourselves. How long can we continue putting our doctors through such treatment and how long will they bear it? And of course, why is it that the plight of doctors never seems to affect the majority population until a health crisis emerges.

Given that these frontline workers already have to deal with the pressure of their profession in these times combined with the serious lack of PPE kits and other medical equipment that is putting their lives in more danger than required, must we really also put them through unabated violence and assaults?

However, with the ordinance now in place to punish attackers of doctors and healthcare workers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, it can be hoped that our COVID-19 warriors are better protected but what happens when we come out of this epidemic? Do we go back to the way things were before? Or do we choose to be better?

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