Stigma: the other enemy India’s overworked doctors face in the battle against Covid-19

March 25, 2020By Niharika Sharma

Overworked Indian medical professionals are now increasingly fighting on a whole new front in the Covid-19 battle: stigma.

Fully under the grip of the global pandemic, the country is reporting cases of doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals, on the frontline of the battle, being shunned by others for fear of being infected. This includes the threat of being evicted from their own apartments and general ostracism.

“They recognise us with our lab coats and stethoscopes. Many doctors have been asked to vacate their rented homes by their landlords as they believe that doctors staying at their houses may make them more susceptible to Covid-19,” a junior doctor at Hyderabad’s MGM Hospital told The New Indian Express newspaper on condition of anonymity. “One (house)-owner even said we were dirty. They asked us to vacate without any notice. Most of the doctors are now on the streets and have nowhere to go.”

Many such doctors share their pain on social media and sought help under these bizarre circumstances.

In West Bengal’s Kolkata, the Federation of Resident Doctors Association (Forda) wrote to the Indian health ministry yesterday (March 24), seeking protection and safety. Several doctors and nurses of New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) have reported harassment from neighbours, forcing the hospital’s Resident Doctor’s Association to seek government intervention.

Copy of the letter written by AIIMS Resident Doctor’s Association.

Alleging discrimination and harassment, their letter to authorities states that many doctors were now stranded on roads with nowhere to go after being driven out of their rented homes.

Additionally, shocking incidents of physical violence have also been reported against the doctors.

Yesterday in Telangana’s Khammam district, a resident PG doctor from Mamata Medical College, was allegedly assaulted by the police at the check post for stepping out amid the ongoing lockdown, according to a News18 report. The doctor was reportedly called in to attend an emergency case at the hospital.

Taking note of the matter, India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, yesterday (March 25) appealed to people to not panic and stop harassing doctors.

These incidents are being reported merely days after prime minister Narendra Modi, on March 22, asked citizens to express gratitude to health workers by clapping their hands, clanging vessels, or by ringing bells.

The government now plans strict action under the Epidemic Diseases Act against those indulging in such harassment.

India’s health care workers, especially doctors, are an overworked lot even under normal circumstances. For instance, there are fewer than one doctor available for every 1,457 Indians, while the World Health Organization recommends a ratio of 1:1,000. In comparison, Australia has three doctors for every 1,000 people; Germany has four.

In any case, these are extraordinary times, increasing the pressure on health care workers manifold. In many parts of the country, doctors themselves have fallen ill following exposure to the virus.

For instance, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow, a 25-year-old junior resident doctor tested positive for Covid-19. In Rajasthan, too, a doctor at a private hospital tested positive for the virus. In the southern state of Kerala, 25 doctors were quarantined after one of their colleagues tested positive.