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Corona warriors: How much do we really appreciate them?

Health workers wearing personal protective equipment while caring for patients with coronavirus infection in the Indian state of Kerala. Corona warriors concept.
Healthcare workers – corona warriors – wearing PPE at a district hospital. Image credit: Javed Anees / CC0

The pandemic has seen an outpouring of support for India’s frontline health workers – its ‘corona warriors’. This is arguably best-exemplified by March’s Janata Curfew, which saw Indians self-quarantining across the nation ringing bells and applauding in praise of healthcare staff. But how much does India truly appreciate its ‘corona warriors’?

There is no shortage of praise for ‘corona warriors’ by public figures. Recent days saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi use their example to exhort citizens to wear masks. “Just think about doctors who are fighting the battle against the virus wearing these masks for hours,” he said. At the beginning of June, Modi proclaimed “the virus may be an invisible enemy. But our warriors, medical workers are invincible. In the battle of Invisible vs Invincible, our medical workers are sure to win.”

Yet for many health workers, the experience of the pandemic has been grim – not only the punishing workload, but external factors. A Hindustan Times report has flagged the experience of on-duty healthcare workers in Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow, who discovered worms and other insects in their food and were forced to live in substandard accommodation. 

The Hindustan Times report quotes Dr Neeraj Mishra, president of the Uttar Pradesh chapter of the Resident Doctors’ Welfare Association, who said “complaining about worms in food has been done several times both by resident doctors and the non-clinical staff. Sometimes not even [the] fan works in the place given to resident doctors to rest after working hours.” 

Also cited in the report is King George’s Medical University nurses’ association president Yadunandini Singh, who highlighted the experience of staff who found insects in food packets. “Insects in food packets show carelessness and also pose a threat to the health of staff who after eating it may suffer illness,” Singh said. “Our association will meet the vice chancellor and demand good food for the staff as they are not going home while on COVID-19 duty.” 

The example from Lucknow is symptomatic of the broader struggle facing healthcare workers during the COVID-19 crisis – one which has enshrined them as ‘corona warriors’ in the mind of public figures and the public. In March, in the wake of the Janata Curfew, I wrote of the struggles facing healthcare workers in obtaining personal protective equipment; of workers facing eviction from rental accommodation due to stigma; and of being ostracised from their communities over fears that they may spread COVID-19. 

“They [landlords] are recognising us with our lab coats and stethoscopes,” a medical student told The New Indian Express at the time. “Many doctors have been asked to vacate their rented homes by their owners as they believe that doctors staying at their houses may make them more susceptible to COVID-19. One 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.” 

Other frontline health workers are facing struggles and underappreciation and stigma too. As my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote of the plight of accredited social health activists (ASHAs), “despite the risk these healthcare workers are placed under, little recognition or financial assistance is being passed their way. As is the case in many other nations, social media campaigns or public displays of appreciation are being made. However, there are only a few cases where these displays of appreciation have translated to financial compensation or pay rises.” 

India’s corona warriors have even been the target of violence and abuse. In April, it was reported that a team of health workers in Uttar Pradesh were pelted with stones, injuring a number of them. The same month, two female doctors in New Delhi were assaulted while buying produce at a fruit stall as reported by The Strait Times. Similar incidents have been reported in a number of states. 

Dr Zakiya Sayed, target of one such incident, maintained that such attacks “won’t deter me from doing my duty.” In comments made to BBC News, she said “we were on our usual round to screen suspected cases. We never thought that we would be attacked. I had never seen scenes like that. It was frightening. We somehow fled from the mob. I am injured but not scared at all.”

Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, president of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum, told Anadolu Agency in April that “health workers facing violent attacks during this pandemic is the height of madness. Incidences of violence dent our confidence, and put us in doubt whether people in this country are even worthy of our efforts. I know we doctors are under oath to serve without discrimination or expectations, but cooperation and support from society is the fundamental need of all professionals. 

“We are working extended hours, sacrificing our food, sleep, personal life, and time with families. If people keep abusing, harassing, and thrashing us, we cannot perform our duties with confidence. The medical fraternity requests everyone to cooperate with health care workers and appeals to the government to provide us protection.” 

During the pandemic, doctors are even being mistreated in death. The Guardian reported of one doctor, Dr Simon Hercules, who lost his life on the job and had to be buried by friends under cover of darkness, because of mob violence. One person on the scene, Dr Pradeep Kumar who later buried the late doctor covertly, described the scene as quoted by The Guardian

“They were screaming at us to leave and take the body before it spread the virus to everyone. It was a crowd of about sixty people, pelting us with sticks and stones. We all had to run for our lives. The ambulance drivers got very badly injured as they desperately put Dr Simon’s body back in the ambulance, and all the windows got smashed as they were driving away. It was terrifying, and so traumatic for his wife and son.”

Dr Simon’s wife and child were not present at his eventual burial. 

It is one thing for India to applaud its corona warriors – it is incumbent upon them to show them respect. It is incumbent upon authorities to crack down on discrimination and stigma and to afford acceptable housing, sanitation services, and even just food free from worms to the corona warriors endangering their lives in the fight against COVID-19. This publication is replete with stories of doctors being harassed, beaten, and even killed in recent years. According to the Indian Medical Association (IMA), 75 percent of health workers in India have faced harassment, violence, and abuse while on duty.

The pandemic should be a time where we appreciate and respect our health workers. It is one thing to call health workers ‘corona warriors’ and to applaud them. It is another to treat them with the respect they deserve; afford them dignity in the course of their work; to provide them proper living conditions; and to not assault them. Corona warriors they are. It is high time to treat them as such. 

The case of Dr Simon, Kumar said in comments quoted by The Guardian, “made me lose my faith in humanity. It should never happen to anyone ever, ever again.” Truer words may never have been spoken. 

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