A few days after the PM asked Indians to thank doctors, nurses, cops, cleaners, etc. – I talked to a nurse. She was in tears, not because she was scared to get COVID-19 - she knew she could - but because she had little means to minimize the chances. Not only did her hospital not have PPEs but they told staff that if they got the virus, they were on their own as treatment was expensive.
I was aghast. Because in many developed nations, the protocol for COVID-19 treatment is that hospital staff would get preference. It wasn’t about gratitude but because while a normal person goes home after recovering, a healthcare worker gets back to work, saving more lives.
Scared for this nurse (every nurse I talked to, asked not to be identified), I said I could try to fund her Personal Protective Equipment. But, she said having her own PPE was not only not permitted in the hospital but could cause conflict with those who didn’t. In short, she was caught in a life-threatening stalemate.
A nurse in Mumbai had a similar story, adding that the society she lives in, has given her family a clear choice – she could quit the job or find another accommodation.
Lack of PPE, unreasonably low salaries for the threat they face, working overtime without extra pay, rude patients, unresponsive - often antagonistic – bosses, sexual harassment; most nurses across India face tremendous odds. During a pandemic when we need them to be focussed, they have been put under needless pressure. Without PPE and hospitals refusing to fund their treatment, they are playing a game of Russian roulette: most of them getting COVID-19 is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Add to that the haphazard lockdown protocols in the country where not just patients but entire localities are stigmatized by authorities and people themselves, and you realise why we might be sitting ducks not just for a medical but also a social disaster. India too seems to have a pistol over her head, being forced to press the trigger by the behaviour of her own children.
Things need not be this way. COVID-19 – as we have seen in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and many other countries, is manageable without panic or fear. For that to happen, I believe the government and every single citizen have to do three things, quickly and precisely.
1. Guarantee treatment, physical safety and social wellbeing of healthcare workers
This is where both government and citizens will have to pitch in. The PM asked citizens to clap for those working during lockdowns to make people focus on the sacrifices being made by these people. But if you are someone who understands bravery only in terms of soldiers, know that doctors and nurses without PPE are like soldiers walking through a hail of incessant bullet fire unarmed.
The central and state governments will have to ensure that no life is put at risk for lack of PPE. And it isn’t too tough to procure PPEs either. Since January when the extent of the pandemic became clear, opportunistic businessmen worldwide ramped up production and are sitting on a stockpile of millions. What’s needed is to think out of the box as these Silicon Valley venture capitalists did, to source millions of masks and PPEs from across the world. Businesses in America are helping. In the UK, Mercedes Formula One copied a breathing aid device within a week.
Corporate India has stepped up efforts to help. Individuals like businessman and film producer Manish Mundra reached out via twitter to source, fund and deliver PPEs to needy hospitals. Laudable as these measures are, this is not the job of individuals but governments who not only have equipment stockpiles but have better financial and political leverage.
Additionally, state governments can pass legislation like the Delhi government did where they promised one crore to every worker who dies fighting COVID-19. What Delhi and other governments should also do, is ensure treatment protocols for healthcare workers who get sick.
In many parts of the world, hotels have been acquired by governments to accommodate doctors and nurses during the crisis. This is not just to protect families of healthcare workers, but also to leave them free – physically and emotionally – to focus on nothing but work.
In India the Taj Hotel Group in Mumbai has offered their premises to doctors and nurses. Again there can be an institutional policy regarding this that should be implemented nationally.
2. Enforce kinder lockdown protocols and implementation
Indians were late to wake up to the effects of the virus. On the day the PM asked people to entertain voluntary lockdown with Janta Curfew, they came and had street parties in the evening beating the whole purpose of the curfew. Lockdown saw people initially ‘checking out’ what was happening. Temples in many parts of the country continue to allow large congregations.
The result is that the virus has spread, faster than it should have with cases and deaths doubling in 4 days instead of 7 as in most other countries. This has spread fear and panic amidst the masses and worse, authorities. In Mumbai where I live, videos of authorities physically locking up areas – in one case the lone path into a catchment was nailed shut with boards, is being shared widely on social media spreading panic and hysteria.
It is true that places that have been identified as hotspots need to be quarantined better than others, but brutality in doing so is uncalled far. It stigmatises patients creating so much fear that people will be hesitant to report cases. This can have dangerous implications for the nation.
The central government needs to formulate and continuously update standard protocols for what needs to be done when a case is reported in an area, and to ensure that it is followed without authorities unleashing unnecessary mayhem on an already suffering populace. In times like these, clear, precise and scientific communication – from the center to the state, states to their districts, districts to individual towns, villages, and municipalities – would be key to fighting this.
3. Fight COVID-19 with knowledge rather than fear
Horror stories of how doctors and nurses and people having or suspected of having COVID-19 have been treated are emerging from across a nation already reeling under multiple, deep-set problems, especially casteism, communalism, xenophobia, and patriarchy. The novel coronavirus seems to have accentuated these with many Indians helping out yes, but many more busy parading their vilest cruelty, crudest prejudice and abject stupidity including on national television.
The truth is there is no need for cruelty or fear. The virus is unpredictable and dangerous and we got to take every precaution we can, but cruelty is not one of the recommended measures to fight it. Indeed, it’s just the reverse – this is the time to unleash our best, kindest side. This, I don’t say merely with the goodness of my heart, but for practical reasons.
Depending upon who you choose to listen to, you have up to 70% (this is the highest, German figure) chance of contacting the COVID-19 virus in your lifetime. Yes, you heard it right – YOU might get the virus. Because of the ease with which it transmits, no matter what we do, it will spread. Why we are taking these quarantine and lockdown measures is to slow it, ensure infections don’t peak at the same time overwhelming our medical infrastructure’s capacity to deal with it.
Hence, this is the first thing you need to remember: you are likely to get COVID-19, many people you love are likely to get it as well. Hence, do not discriminate with those who have it today for they are just ahead of you in line. Tomorrow if and when you get it, you would need them to take care of you, just as they need you today. Treat healthcare workers with respect because there’s a good chance they might be instrumental in saving your life tomorrow.
What’s happening is unprecedented. Most governments, beginning with China, Italy, Spain, USA and to an extent even India, have been slow to react. This is understandable given the unprecedented and sudden nature of the pandemic. If you had told me 6 months ago that over 50% of the world would be under lockdown at the same time bringing the global economy to a halt, I’d have had a good laugh.
Hence we need to cut each other a bit of slack – not too much – for our fear, our delayed reaction, and panic. What we should not tolerate is the addition of the fuel of prejudice and injustice to the raging fire of COVID-19. Because if we do, the problem will only compound.
In China, over 3,300 nurses, doctors, and hospital staff were infected with COVID-19 mostly because of a lack of PPE. We cannot afford that in India. You know why? Because we have a shortage of 600,000 doctors and 2 million nurses in normal time.
Thus, during a pandemic, the loss of even a handful in the wrong place and wrong time could have a cascading effect on the nation’s medical system, and by extension its social and political structure. This, India can least afford, as much inside a pandemic, as outside it.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)