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Doctors, hospital workers are also fighting abuse and violence as virus stigma, panic grows

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Residents of Tatpatti Bakhal in Indore apologise to a team of doctors, a day after health workers were attacked by a mob, on 2 April 2020
Residents of Tatpatti Bakhal in Indore apologise to a team of doctors, a day after health workers were attacked by a mob, on 2 April 2020 | PTI


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Mumbai: Trupti Katdare was in a slum in the central Indian city of Indore when the mob attacked.

She and a group of other public-health workers had been tracking down a man who might have had contact with a recently confirmed case of the coronavirus. When they found him, he cursed at them, asking why they wanted his information and accusing them of trying to take him away.

Almost immediately, at least 100 people surrounded the team, throwing stones and other objects. Luckily, they managed to escape.

“At that time, I was only thinking how we can save our lives,” Katdare said. “My husband, my kids, my family members were in front of my eyes as I wondered if I’d see them again.”

Katdare’s experience is one of the more dramatic in a phenomenon that has become common in India lately: health-care workers being subjected to violence and abuse as they try to contain the virus. Assaults have been reported across the country as people panic about catching the disease from medical workers or being stigmatized for having contracted it themselves.

In the southern city of Bengaluru (formerly known as Bangalore), health workers were attacked as they went door to door checking people for symptoms. In the central city of Bhopal, doctors returning from an emergency shift were stopped by the police, accused of spreading the virus, and beaten with batons. And in New Delhi, one doctor was assaulted by a shopper at a local fruit market, while neighbors of one of her colleagues attempted to force the woman from her apartment building.

Particularly Bad

Medical workers have also been attacked from Australia to the Philippines, but the situation is particularly bad in India. So much so that the government released a public service announcement last week pleading for an end to the stigmatization.

“When you become a doctor, you know there’s a risk of contracting infection,” said Nirmalya Mohapatra, a senior doctor at a public hospital in New Delhi and vice president of his institution’s resident doctors’ association. “We are not scared of infections, we were mentally prepared for that as an occupational hazard. But getting beaten up, that wasn’t something we mentally prepared for. That’s not an occupational hazard we signed up for.”

The backlash comes from people across the country’s diverse social classes, religions, language groups and geographies, making it harder to isolate one explanation for why the trend is more widespread and intense in India.

But there are some contributing factors. Trust in the health-care system was already low, while misinformation is ubiquitous on social media. And an unprecedented nationwide lockdown, given with just four hours’ notice, has intensified the hysteria.

At the same time, weeks of media coverage of how the virus spread at an Islamic religious organization in Delhi has stoked sectarian tensions that were already running high, while the virus has also played into deep fears of social ostracism in a country where for centuries some castes were classified as untouchables.

‘New Untouchables’

“The caste system is based on that idea of purity and pollution, what is pure and what is polluted, what can be touched and what can’t be touched,” said Priyasha Kaul, a sociologist at Ambedkar University Delhi. “This can almost be seen as the new untouchables: a new category of people who need to be feared, who need to be kept away.”

As in other countries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has encouraged people to rally around the medical workers on the frontline of the virus fight. Modi implored citizens to come to their doors just before sunset at the end of a day-long curfew in late March to bang pots and pans together in an expression of thanks.

But tensions have risen as the government takes ever-stricter measures to contain the outbreak, which has increased to 9,240 cases and 331 deaths as of Monday. India is still under lockdown, which prohibits citizens from leaving their homes for any reason but to buy food or medicine or in an emergency.

And though the country has ramped up testing in recent days, with slightly more than 179,000 samples collected so far, it’s still only performing 0.13 tests per every thousand people, compared to eight tests per thousand in the U.S. and nearly 10 in South Korea, according to data from April 11 from the website Our World in Data. That low rate has stoked fears the outbreak could be much larger than official statistics show.


Also read: Bhopal’s health dept, led by its IAS secy, becomes new corona hotspot, half city’s cases linked


Stringent Steps

In apartment buildings or neighborhoods where cases have been found, the measures are getting even more severe. Residents have been prohibited from leaving their homes at all, and are subject to continuous surveillance from CCTV cameras, drones and police. Supplies are delivered right to their doors as teams come through regularly to spray disinfectant, and health workers monitor people for symptoms.

“Just as they are discriminating against doctors over fears they are bringing coronavirus into their communities and residential buildings, they start worrying if they are found to be positive they will be discriminated against by their own friends and their own societies,” said Vivekanand Jha, executive director of the George Institute for Global Health, India. “Rather than worrying about the health risks they are worrying about their own living situations.”

The physicians of Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi, one of the public institutions designated to handle coronavirus cases, have born the brunt of the growing stigma.

Asked to Leave

One doctor endured a campaign by her neighbors to force her out of her apartment, according to Dr. Manish, who goes by one name, president of the resident doctors’ association at the hospital. First they cut off her electricity, then her water supply, then they began picking fights over trivial matters. Finally, they surrounded her one day and asked her to leave on fears she would infect the building. The police intervened and that doctor has not had any harassment since.

“We are already under so much stress and on top of that, this kind of discrimination is very disheartening,” said Sanjibani Panigrahi, a doctor at a government hospital in the city of Surat in western India, whose video of a neighbor verbally abusing her went viral on social media. She says it was part of a campaign by her neighbors to force her from the building.

The man who harangued her spent 24 hours in jail before being released on bail, and later issued a public apology. Though Panigrahi chose not to press charges, she plans to find a new apartment when the lockdown is over.

“Not a single neighbor has come after the incident to say this was wrong and we support you,” she said. “Such a lockdown has never been done in our country. It has put people into a frenzy and panic mode. They think it’s the apocalypse.”

The Indian Medical Association, which represents doctors in the private sector, has been pushing for laws to make it easier to file charges for attacks against health-care workers, and to disallow bail for such offenses.

Not Unfounded

K.K. Aggarwal, president of the Confederation of Medical Associations of Asia and Oceania, said the fears health-care workers could spread the disease are not unfounded, noting that in China, the epicenter of the global outbreak, medical workers accounted for about 3.8% of confirmed cases. He recommends governments find workers treating coronavirus cases temporary accommodation for the next few months. The local Delhi doctor’s association has arranged for some of its members forced from their homes to put up in local hotels and Sikh temples.

“Being beaten up is never a good feeling, or being chucked from your house,” said Rajan Sharma, president of the IMA. “My stand is give the strongest punishment to such individuals.”

But Trupti Katdare, the doctor attacked by the mob in Indore, took a different approach. She and her team returned to the neighborhood the following day.

“We counseled them we are doing this to save your life,” she said. “They realized their fault and apologized.”-Bloomberg


Also read: Dear Indians, don’t clap for doctors battling Covid-19 if you don’t want them as neighbours


 

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India

Andhra doctor, suspended for alleging PPE shortage, now beaten by cops for ‘creating nuisance’

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doctor with a stethoscope
A doctor with a stethoscope (Representative image) | Pixabay


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Bengaluru: A doctor with a government hospital in Andhra Pradesh, who was suspended for questioning the shortage of PPE kits, was admitted to a mental health facility Sunday, a day after he was allegedly manhandled by the police and arrested for creating nuisance in Visakhapatnam.

Dr Sudhakar Rao, a government civil surgeon, was beaten, his hands tied behind his back and dragged by police officers Sunday. During the incident, Sudhakar allegedly verbally abused the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in an inebriated state. Videos of the incident have since been widely shared online.

“The police control room received a call about a person creating nuisance on Beach Road Hospital in Visakhapatnam. The Fourth Town police was rushed there and found that the person was the suspended doctor, Sudhakar.

“When the police tried to control him, he snatched the mobile phone of an officer and threw it away. He is suffering from mental disorder and he was drunk. He was sent for a medical examination,” Vishakapatnam Police Commissioner R.K. Meena told the media Sunday.

Sudhakar was admitted to a mental hospital Sunday after doctors at the King George Hospital in Vishakapatnam said he suffered from anxiety.

“Since the doctor is in anxiety and talking irrelevant things, I have referred him to a mental care hospital in Visakhapatnam,” said Dr Radha Rani, medical superintendent, King George Hospital.

A statement released by the hospital said: “Dr Sudhakar was brought to the KGH casualty ward at 6.30 pm. From the smell, it was found that he was in a drunk condition. Under the influence of alcohol, he did not cooperate with anybody there and kept abusing all. Still, his pulse, BP were checked. Pulse was 98, BP 140/100. Blood samples were sent to forensic lab to ascertain alcohol content in his blood.”


Also read: 6 toilets for 20 houses, inadequate testing: Why Mumbai’s Worli chawls are a Covid hotspot


‘Treatment towards Sudhakar was inhuman’

Sudhakar, who spent more than 10 years at the Narsipatnam Government Hospital in Andhra Pradesh, was suspended from his duties in March after he openly criticised the Reddy government for failing to provide PPE kits and N95 masks to doctors treating Covid-19 patients.

He had alleged that the state government was giving N95 masks and PPE kits meant for doctors to politicians and the police.

A video of Sudhakar criticising the government was also shared widely. In the clip, he can be heard saying: “We are putting our lives at risk here. We are asked to use the same mask for 15 days and a fresh mask will be provided only twice a month.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Dr P. Gangadhar Rao, member of the National COVID Committee of the Indian Medical Association, said the manner in which Sudhakar was manhandled by the police was “inhuman” and “violated” human rights.

“We strongly condemn the way he was taken into custody. He was not carrying a weapon, he was alone, the number of policemen outnumbered him. Why treat him like that? We also saw a video where a policeman beats him with a lathi,” said Dr Gangadhar.

He added that Rao was one of the most experienced anaesthetists the Andhra Pradesh government had.

“Our next step of action is to get Sudhakar to write an unconditional apology for having used filthy language, abusing the chief minister and the government. We will then take our appeal to the CM seeking that he be reinstated,” Gangadhar said.


Also read: Face shields, gowns, masks — the new attire for cabin crew post lockdown


 

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