Doctor's strike highlights problem of violence in West Bengal

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 18, 2019 10:50 hrs
Hospitals in Delhi to join IMA's strike call

West Bengal, which recently witnessed incidents of violence in the last few days of campaigning ahead f the Lok Sabha polls, is now again the centre of attention for the wrong reasons as doctors across the state have gone on strike protesting violent attacks against a few doctors. The strike has entered its sixth day and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has the spotlight on her to see how she defuses the situation. The Sunday Guardian summed up the state of affairs in its editorial

If any state of the Union has come to epitomise the word “chaos”, it is Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal in 2019. Perhaps no other state in this country appears to be getting sucked into a whirlpool of violence and mayhem, from where coming out may get difficult in the near future.

The doctors are protesting the assault of three of their colleagues last week. One of them has suffered a skull injury when he was assaulted for alleged medical negligence. In the incident, the family of a deceased patient clashed with medical staff at a state-run medical hospital and allegedly attacked an intern.

This has now sparked a number of protests across the country in Delhi, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu and many other states. In Jaipur doctors continued their work but wore black bands in solidarity.

The Indian Medical Association (IMA) called for a nation-wide withdrawal of non-essential medical services for 24 hours staring Monday morning. The IMA is headed by Santanu Sen of the TMC who’s a Rajya Sabha MP. The AIIMS Resident Doctors’ Association decided not to participate in the strike. The Hindu editorial offers a starting point on the way forward in its editorial

The effort to end violence against doctors and medical professionals must start with the understanding that doctors and patients do not have an antagonistic relationship, and barriers to care created by systemic deficiencies need to be eliminated.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has her hands full with this crisis. The Governor of West Bengal, Keshari Nath Tripathi, on Thursday appealed to the striking doctors to resume work in the interest of the patients. A memo sent by a group of doctors was sent to the Governor which demanded adequate security and protection for doctors and a full investigation of the incident where junior doctors and an intern were attacked. The Chief Minister initially made a mistake in ignoring the strike and taking a hard line stance on it by threatening the doctors who were on strike. The doctors have agreed to meet with her but want it to be broadcast to the public. The state government has invited the doctors to a meeting scheduled for 3 pm Monday.

The crux of the demand from the doctors is protection and a law against attacks on medical and healthcare professionals. The editorial mentions a 2017 review of some of the causes of tensions among patients’ kin and doctors in the National Medical Journal of India. The review authored by Neeraj Gopal, Convener, Medicos Legal Action Group (MLAG) states that this is a unique problem for India –

Meager government spending on healthcare has resulted in poor infrastructure and human resource crunch in government hospitals. The Prevention of Violence against Medicare Persons and Institutions Acts, which have been notified in 19 states in the past 10 years, has failed to address the issue.

The other reasons given by Gopal are poor communication, lack of healthcare literacy and the cost of healthcare. Infrastructure is another issue that hasn’t been dealt with enough. State governments have dragged their feet when it comes to filling vacancies in public hospitals and the cost of medical education is high. The NDA government’s National Health Policy states that public expenditure on healthcare will increase to 2.5% of GDP.

A fundamental lack of communication in dire or tragic circumstances can result in family members resorting to violence in seeking answers. One of the solutions offered in the review is a change in the Indian Penal Code as well as having a central law for prevention of violence against healthcare persons. From the doctor’s perspective, their duty is to treat their patients to the best of their ability. Shah Alam Khan, professor, department of Orthopaedics, AIIMS, in a column for the Indian Express, writes on the case for compassion –

Doctors in India are considered next to god. Most doctors wear this idolisation with pride and this leads to hubris. Violence as a means of effecting “justice” is common in Indian society but a large part of the intellectual class, including doctors, remains insensitive to this problem, till they are affected.

In the midst of this crisis, patients are being affected; not only in West Bengal, but in other states as well as the call for strikes continue to spread. The onus is now on the state government and the medical professionals to engage in dialogue. The Statesman editorial puts it thus –

For both the doctors and the government, it is time to see reason and act. The patient has suffered long enough. Since last Monday night, the applecart of healthcare has been rocked fair and square. Indeed, West Bengal is in crisis.

More columns by Varun Sukumar