As the global coronavirus pandemic worsens in India, its frontline medical workers and essential service providers are bearing the brunt of public paranoia caused by a shortage of medical equipments coupled with fake news and WhatsApp forwards.
“Life is full of ironies,” this adage seems to be absolutely true for essential service providers who are waging a two-front battle in India. Leprosy, tuberculosis and HIV-Aids patients had all been similarly stigmatised in the past but this time it is India’s essential service providers who are battling social stigma.
On the one hand, the medics in India are fighting the deadly coronavirus for which they were recently applauded and appreciated, and on the other hand, they are also battling social stigma which has exposed the fault lines in the Indian society.
India’s doctor-patient ratio stands at one doctor for every 1,445 citizens, according to data from the government of India. This ratio is lower than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) prescribed ratio of one doctor for every 1,000 people.
Recently, doctors at Nalanda Medical College in Bihar treated patients while wearing only an elementary surgical kit. They had meals in a mess shared by 83 doctors, all of whom were apprehensive that may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
But when the doctors requested for being quarantined, they were flatly rejected and asked to keep working. With a pandemic developing — and in an impoverished state with just one government doctor for every 28,000 people — the hospital couldn’t afford to lose them. So they took medicines and kept examining the patients.
In the remote district of Maharashtra, doctors were seen wearing raincoats and treating suspected COVID-19 patients. Over the weekend, doctors in Sevagram, in central India, were told that their hospital would become a regional center for COVID-19 patients, despite having “hardly any” protective gear, according to a medic staff.
Doctors and hospital staff are particularly prone to catching Covid-19 given the perilous state of India’s medical affairs which has raised concerns about health workers exposed to the virus. In such a situation, evicting doctors out of their homes will further dent the morale of medics and dramatically imperilling India’s fight against the deadly coronavirus.
“Doctors in other countries are fighting the virus but doctors in India are fighting the stigma,” said a senior resident doctor at the same hospital, who only gave his initials M. P. Indian PM Modi called on Indians to stop treating medical workers as pariahs, describing those fighting the virus as “God-like”. “Today they are the people who are saving us from dying, putting their lives in danger.”
However, the plea of PM Modi seems to have fallen on deaf ears as the reality on the ground is completely different. Sanjibani Panigrahi, a doctor in the western city of Surat, in Gujarat described how she was accosted as she returned home from a long day at a hospital that is treating COVID-19 patients.
She said neighbours blocked her at the entrance to her apartment building and threatened consequences if she continued to work. “These are the same people who have happily interacted with me (in the past). Whenever they’ve faced a problem, I’ve helped them out,” the 36-year-old told AFP. “There is a sense of fear among people. I do understand. But it’s like I suddenly became an untouchable.”
In the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, the situation is not very different, a senior resident doctor at Jodhpur’s Ummaid hospital had just been evicted from her home over fears she might spread the virus. “First, [the landlord] asked me not to use the toilet. Then he said he would disconnect the water supply and electricity connection because he wanted to renovate the house,” Ankita Mathur said.
“When I informed him that it would be impossible to find another house at such short notice, he clearly said that he wanted me to leave because he feared that I would put everyone at high risk of contracting the coronavirus infection.”
Some health care workers have been called dirty by their former landlords, while in the central state of Telangana, 22-year-old Nihal Mallela, a junior resident doctor at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital, said he hides the identifying markers of his profession such as a stethoscope and white coat out of fear people will look at him with suspicion.
Anirban Dutta, a 33-year-old pathologist of West Bengal’s Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital, who was also evicted recently, said that he had told the owner of the house that the infection is mainly transmitted through droplets that come out when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and he (Anirban) was not infected.
He also added that he and the landlord stayed on separate floors, and neither used common spaces or utensils, so the landlord could not have possibly contracted the infection from him. However, he said that the owner was not convinced.
Even the daily life is getting increasingly challenging for anyone associated with the fight against coronavirus. Arghyadeep Ganguly, a junior doctor at Beleghata Infectious Disease hospital in Kolkata, described how seven taxi drivers refused to pick him up when they realised he was a doctor.
So poor is the understanding and so high is the scare related to coronavirus that one doctor was beaten by police officials when she was on her way to the hospital. The police officials miffed with the women doctor for travelling at the time of lockdown beat her up and then took her to the police station in complete disregard of Indian laws.
So many frontline health care workers across the country have been evicted that the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences’ resident doctors’ association has written to Home Minister Amit Shah urging him to intervene.
“Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers involved in Covid-19 care are being asked to vacate their rented homes and some have been even forcefully evicted from their temporary residence by landlords and house-owners due to the fear that those healthcare professionals make them susceptible to coronavirus infection,” said a letter from the Resident Doctors’ Association of New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, sent on Tuesday to Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan has moved to assure the public that all precautions are being taken by both “doctors and staff” treating coronavirus patients to ensure that they do not become disease carriers, and the authorities have warned of legal action against any landlords evicting tenants on such grounds. But for some doctors, the government’s assurances are a case of too little too late.
However, the doctors or not the only ones facing social stigma, even airline and airport staff, who have been evacuating thousands of Indians stuck overseas are facing the same issue.
Indigo and Air India have condemned threats made against their staff. An Air India flight attendant told AFP her neighbours threatened to evict her from her apartment while she was heading to the United States, saying she would “infect everyone”.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said, afraid to reveal her name over the fear of further stigmatisation. “I was scared that even if I did go home, would someone break open the door or call people to kick me out?”
Her husband had to ask the police for help. Others have not been as lucky, the flight attendant said, with one colleague – who declined to speak to AFP – forced out of her home and now living with her parents. “With all the fake news and WhatsApp forwards, they don’t know what is going on, so there’s this paranoia that makes them behave like this,” she said.