‘Virus may be invisible, but our health workers are invincible’

This statement may sound motivational and rhythmic, but in actuality does it make justice to the prevailing situation in the country where hundreds of doctors and healthcare workers are falling prey to the coronavirus on a daily basis?

As the number of COVID-19 cases surges across the nation, the front-line healthcare workers who are at the forefront of the battle against coronavirus are now at the receiving end. Reports on doctors and healthcare professionals getting infected with COVID-19 has taken up a permanent spot among the daily news.

The spike in infection rate among medical professionals can be attributed to several factors such as low quality of the available PPE to overexposure at the workplace. Even though the Centre hasn’t revealed any actual statistics, several doctors are getting infected by the coronavirus on a day to day basis. To make things worse, some of the so-called ‘invincible heroes’ have already succumbed to the disease during the course of action. Even when the society attributes superhero powers to healthcare workers, when it comes to ground reality, every healthcare worker is at the bleeding edge of the pandemic.

Let the numbers speak for themselves

The official data on the morbidity and mortality experienced by healthcare workers in India is not yet revealed. Meantime, the data gathered by the Indian Medical Association shows that at least 500 doctors have been infected with COVID-19 across the state of Maharashtra. However, the actual count may be higher, since they only managed to keep a tab on cases reported by IMA members in Maharashtra. This will only worsen the situation in the state by adding to the already existing shortage of healthcare workers. 

The situation in the national capital doesn’t seem to stand out from the pack. The prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)- Delhi has staggering figures when it comes to the number of healthcare workers being tested positive. As many as 480 healthcare workers, including 19 doctors and 38 nurses, have been infected so far.

As per statistics, over 100 hundred doctors have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad in the last two months. With 47 doctors and 10 healthcare workers testing positive and many being symptomatic, few of the hospitals in Hyderabad are likely to have turned into super-spreading zones. Samples of over 50 doctors and 20 health workers, which were taken to the lab for testing, are now awaiting results.

Meanwhile, the cardiology department at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) Hyderabad has been shut following the coronavirus infection among nine doctors. Similarly, the number of doctors and other healthcare workers from the cardiology department contracting the disease is also expected to increase in the days to come as many of the staff are already showing symptoms.

Over the last three days, six healthcare workers have been tested positive for COVID-19 at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER). All these reported cases are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with many more pieces yet to come out. Once we assemble all the pieces it will certainly show up a staggering picture highlighting the fatality of the pandemic upon the healthcare workers.

Even while the concerns regarding the rising tolls within the medical community hangs over their heads, doctors and healthcare workers continue to serve the patients in a normal manner, in fact, the ‘new normal’ way. Several efforts and gestures from the doctors have won hearts during the pandemic. One such inspiring story of a doctor comes from the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College of Aligarh Muslim University. Taking no notice of his personal health, Prof Mohammad Shameem from the department of TB and chest diseases at JNMC continues to treat patients even after being tested positive for COVID-19. Quarantined at his residence, the doctor uses telemedicine to connect with the patients.

Shameem pointed out that the fear of getting infected was always there, but as a doctor working in a global medical emergency, he had to keep the negative thoughts at bay and continue to serve humanity.

What do the lauding hands offer?

The change in central guidelines which exposes the doctors and other healthcare workers to COVID-19 is causing simmering unrest among medical professionals throughout the country. Under the previous guidelines, all doctors, nurses, technicians, and sanitation workers in the COVID-19 wards had to work 14 days in a row and remain in quarantine for the next 14 days to ensure that they did not take the infection back home.

However, the newly revised guidelines laid down by the union health ministry on May 15, referring to the management of manpower in hospitals stated that there was no need for quarantine of healthcare workers after COVID-19 duty unless there had been a breach in the personal protective equipment or any other forms of high-risk exposure. Even though the guidelines have clear cut points to define ‘high-risk exposure’ neither the ministry nor the government seems to have a plan to safeguard the doctors and healthcare workers from this high-risk exposure at the workplace.

While replying to a plea questioning the Centre’s new guidelines for COVID- healthcare workers by which it has ended the 14-day mandatory quarantine for them, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) has told the supreme court that it is ultimately the doctors’ own responsibility to protect themselves from COVID-19. “It is their responsibility to train themselves and take all measures in preventing the infection” reads the MoHFW reply.

Ever since the arrival of the pandemic the prime minister has been lauding the contributions and efforts of the frontline healthcare workers, but the neglect by the Centre and concerned authorities towards the occupational health problems of healthcare workers remains unchanged even during this pandemic. Healthcare professionals are the most vulnerable group on whose health the COVID-19 control strategy of the entire nation rests.

Healthcare workers are not born with supernatural powers. A pair of gloves and PPE cannot solely take them out of the deadly virus attack. The Government and the concerned authorities should bring in effective measures to curb the rising infection among healthcare workers. The Return of Investment for this will be the ‘healthy lives’ of millions of people all around the country.

It’s high time to accept the reality that no nation can fight a battle with a troop of ailing warriors!

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