|In a few cases, female nurses have to deal with vulgar language from their patients. / Photo by Eldar Nurkovic via Shutterstock|
India’s Union Cabinet recently approved an ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 by now making acts of violence against healthcare workers a nonbailable offense, punishable from 6 months to 7 years in prison and a fine of ₹1 lakh to ₹5 lakh, Indian daily newspaper The Hindu reports.
India doctors attacked as they fight the spread of Covid-19
Physicians and several other healthcare workers have been chased away and spat at. In a few cases, female nurses have to deal with vulgar language from their patients. Some doctors and their families also reported being ostracized by their neighbors due to their exposure to Covid-19 patients. One video that has gone viral in India showed people throwing stones at two female doctors wearing PPE in a densely-populated area in Indore. The doctors went to the city to assess a person with symptoms of Covid-19.
Zakiya Sayed, one of the doctors in the viral video, said that the incident will not stop her from doing her duty. She told BBC that they were doing their usual round of screening suspected cases and were not expecting to be attacked by the locals. “It was frightening” but they somehow fled the group throwing stones at them.
Dr. Sayed added that they received information about a person who had come into contact with a Covid-19 patient and when they were talking to that person, some residents got agitated. Seven patients have already been arrested concerning that incident.
Indore’s Covid-19 taskforce’ member Dr. Anand Rai also said that nothing can justify the violence against healthcare workers but it occurs in an area dominated by Muslims as they have general distrust against the government. Dr. Rai went on to say that such anger spilled over during the pandemic, evident through the attack.
Using vulgar and abusive language towards medical staff
Unruly scenes were also witnessed in a hospital in Ghaziabad. A total of 21 people have been quarantined in the hospital. These people were present in a prayer meeting in Delhi that was linked to hundreds of Covid-19 cases in the country. It was alleged that some of these quarantined people used vulgar words against the medical staff.
A doctor who works in the Ghaziabad-based hospital said that some quarantined people walked naked in the hospital ward and harassed the nurses and doctors. They also kept requesting for tobacco and cigarettes. An Indian senior police officer said that they are still trying to make the patients understand how serious the situation is.
Amendment to the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897
The ordinance proposing the amendment of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 makes attacks against healthcare workers a cognizable offense and the offender compensate for the injury suffered by the healthcare workers. Offenders of the amended Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 will also be liable for the loss to property or damage concerning attacks on the medical staff.
It will take 30 days for the investigation to be completed and within such period, a final decision should be arrived at within a year. Anyone found guilty of violating said ordinance will be punished from 3 months to 5 years or with a fine of ₹50,000 to ₹2 lakh. For severe or grievous injuries suffered by the healthcare workers, offenders will have to face 6 months to 7 years imprisonment plus a fine of ₹1 lakh to ₹5 lakh.
India’s Minister of Health and Family Welfare Dr. Harsh Vardhan shared in Twitter that as per the ordinance, there will be “zero tolerance” for any acts of violence against healthcare service personnel and/or damage to property.
He also tweeted how public venting against medical workers in the country has led to damage to property and harassment assault.
|Physicians and several other healthcare workers have been chased away and spat at. / Photo by Dragana Gordic via Shutterstock|
Special laws previously enacted by some states
The government released the ordinance to make sure that is zero tolerance for any form of attacks against healthcare workers and damage to property in any situation during the pandemic. Before the amendment of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the pandemic itself, several states in India had already implemented special laws to protect doctors and medical personnel. The Covid-19 pandemic has just created a situation where harassment of medical personnel was evident at all fronts, even in cremation grounds. Those state laws do not cover such bounds and generally do not include the protection of healthcare workers if they are already in their homes and focus more on physical violence.
The provisions on punishments on these state laws are also not stringent compared to the new ordinance. The President of India has already given his concurrence to said ordinance and the Indian Medical Association welcomed it.
Chain of hospitals Paras Healthcare’s COO Shankar Narang told The Hindu that the new ordinance will not just deter the criminal elements in the country but will also boost the confidence of their healthcare workers who have been jittery due to repeated incidents of attacks in the country. He added that healthcare service personnel are the front-line warriors in the fight against Covid-19 along with other Covid-19 fighters, including police officials and the sanitation workers. They should remain as the backbone of the health crisis response.
Practicing doctors in India: statistics
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental economic organization founded to stimulate economic progress and world trade, shared that there were 0.8 professional practicing doctors in 2017 for every 1,000 inhabitants in the country. It has one of the lowest numbers of doctors compared to other OECD countries.
Meanwhile, authors Prof. Sudhir Anand from the University of Oxford and Victoria Fan from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shared in a 2016 study that there were 2,069,540 health workers in a population of 1,028,610,328 in 2001. This was also reflected in data from the World Health Organization (WHO). They suggested that the country’s 2001 data should be the basis for authoritative documentation for the distribution of the healthcare workforce in the country as 2001 WHO data contained occupation of those in other health-related categories, such as a homeopathic doctor, pharmacists, nurse, and ayurvedic doctors.
Of the said healthcare workforce in India, 630,406 are nurses and midwives, 819,475 are doctors, and 231,438 are ancillary health professionals.
Doctors and healthcare workers are already facing a high risk of infection as they are helping Covid-19 patients recover. It is therefore essential to also ensure their security and safety.