If the masses are not sensitised to the need to support healthcare and other frontline workers, India’s battle against the disease will well and truly be lost.
The several incidences of healthcare personnel being attacked or facing harassment in the past few weeks—much of it boils down to the fear of Covid-19 transmission, since frontline healthcare workers are a high-risk group—are not just reprehensible, but also downright criminal. There have been reports of hostility from across the country: In Indore, healthcare personnel were assaulted and pelted with stones, in Chennai, a doctor who died of Covid-19 that he contracted from patients at the hospital he owned was refused burial, and his colleagues, who were accompanying his body, chased away with sticks and stone pelting, in Surat, a doctor was verbally harassed by her neighbours, and in Bengaluru, a group of ASHA workers on Covid-19 surveillance duty were attacked by the residents of a locality.
There have also been reports of Covid-19 patients misbehaving with hospital staff. The government, therefore, did well to amend the Epidemic Act, 1867 through the ordinance route, to criminalise such attacks, and make them a non-bailable offence, with a maximum prison sentence of seven years.
Frontline workers, be it healthcare workers, civic workers, emergency responders, or even police personnel, are working under great duress at the moment. Among them, healthcare workers are particularly vulnerable as they endure exposures of the maximum length and intensity to the Covid-19 pathogen. The shortage of manpower—India needs 6,00,000 more doctors, and 20 lakh more nurses than what it has now—already places a heavy burden on the existing workforce.
The pandemic, and the pace of its progress, has compounded this many times over. Despite facing conditions that make work even tougher—the shortage of personal protective equipment, for instance—most healthcare workers are still soldiering on. And, if India eventually ends up seeing the worst infection spread and hospitalisation numbers projected for it, it will need every trained healthcare hand available.
If the masses are not sensitised to the need to support healthcare and other frontline workers, India’s battle against the disease will well and truly be lost. To that end, the ordinance’s provision for harsher punishment and its strict enforcement should serve as a deterrent. While the ordinance rests on the Epidemic Act being invoked, the government must look at a more permanent way to protect healthcare workers.
To be sure, it did frame the Healthcare Service Personnel and Clinical Establishments (Prohibition of Violence and Damage to Property) Bill 2019 to deter attacks on, and harassment of hospital staff, but this is yet to be enacted. At the same time, it must run awareness campaigns to address citizens’ fears about exposure to the pathogen via healthcare workers—for instance, there have been reports of landlords and neighbours of healthcare workers wanting them evicted—apart from perhaps arranging to house healthcare workers in separate facilities, in order to minimise exposure. It could perhaps enlist hotels and guesthouses against a fair compensation to house healthcare workers.