The change of behaviour towards frontline COVID warriors like doctors shows the dark underbelly of our society
The change of behaviour towards frontline COVID warriors like doctors shows the dark underbelly of our society|Representational image
OPINION

In India’s COVID-19 war, medical warriors fight their own battle

No cruelty can undo a man who died serving his people

Bidhayak Das

Bidhayak Das

He served the people with compassion, made one of the best hospitals in the city, a philanthropist par excellence, he was always available to all, in times of need. His hospital gave the poor and the needy hope of getting affordable treatment. It was also where another great man, distinguished scientist former Indian President Abdul Kalam breathed his last. But little did this great soul whose motto was service above self, know that his last rites would have to go through an ordeal, for many among the very people he served would deny him that right and honour.

The above lines are a tribute to Doctor John L Sailo Ryntathiang - who passed away on the morning of April 15, barely 24 hours after being detected as the first COVID-19 case in Meghalaya. That was perhaps destiny, but the cruelty and drama that played out at the very end for such a noble soul, was painful and heartbreaking, which had many Shillong resident crying out, “I want hang my head in shame.” For an entire day the family members of the renowned doctor, who founded the Bethany hospital in Shillong, were running from pillar to post to convince people to allow them to conduct his last rites.

The 69-year old doctor was finally buried on Thursday afternoon at the Presbyterian cemetery at Lawmali in Shillong after refusal by the public of two localities within the city where the electric crematorium is located and in the nearby district of Ribhoi. Ironically, those that refused did so out of “fear” of contamination which was largely spurred by the social media trolling and vilification that the doctor’s family was subjected to as soon as his infection was made public.

The Shillong doctor’s story incidentally is one of the many cruelties that has come to the fore in India since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. It has exposed the dark underbelly of our societies, where there’s little room compassion and love.

The morning of April 15 also witness a brutal attack on health workers in Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Stone pelting by a mob of hundreds left a doctor badly injured, and an ambulance and a police car vandalized. The medical team had gone to trace and quarantine a family of a COVID-19 victim who passed away recently. Soon after the incident the provincial government responded by imposing the National Security Act (NSA) and other Indian Penal Code (IPC) provisions on all those found guilty. But the question is, will arrest and punishment deter such acts or do we need to create a much-needed awareness on COVID-19 among the citizens, which is lacking?

India perhaps tops the list of the countries which includes Pakistan, Philippines, Mexico, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Australia including Chicago in the United States that have witnessed harsh attacks on doctors, nurses and health workers. “People terrified by the highly infectious virus are lashing out at medical professional—kicking them off buses, evicting them from apartments, even dousing them with water mixed with chlorine,” wrote the Washington Post on April 8.

The rise in violence unleashed on medics even drove the head of Vatican, Pope Francis to send out a message to the world to respect and stand up for these frontline heroes in the war against coronavirus. On April 9 in his Holy Thursday Easter speech delivered from a near empty St Peter’s Basilica he referred to doctors and nurses as “saints next door.” This was a message that should have helped to awaken the misguided or the rogues, but alas the spirit of Easter seems long buried and forgotten and attacks on the next door “saints” continue unabated.

Stories of the “saints next door”

This is the story of 34-year-old Dr Sanjibani Panigrahi who lives and works at a government hospital in the city of Surat in Gujarat. Just about a month ago she was everyone’s darling, respected and the go-to doctor in the building where she lives. From regular check-ups to free counselling and assistance to her neighbours to get treatments at the government run civil hospital, it was all “extremely nice”. Unfortunately, all those feelings for the next-door saint have now vanished and it’s about hatred and loathe for her.

So, what went wrong? “The answer is simple,” said the 34-year old medic during a conversation with this writer. “People think because I work at the hospital which also admits COVID-19 patients, I carry the virus.” The change of attitude among people that for the past two weeks has been such that Dr Panigrahi has been abused, warned of being on the “hit list” of the housing complex leading to the climax on April 5. A video taken by her and posted on her Facebook, showed her neighbor charging at her physically, banging her apartment door on her face and threatening her with dire consequences if she did not vacate the building, went viral.

The young medic stood her ground and refused to be cowed down by the threats. Her social media posts soon alerted the media all over the country. She called the cops and the abuser, Chetan Mehta and his wife were arrested and detained for a night. Later they were made to issue a video and written apology to the doctor.

However, the young medic knows that she still isn’t safe as “these are times when people can behave in the most unthinkable manner.” She stays in the apartment with her three-and-half month old son and her dog. She has been apprising the local member of the ruling political party in the Gujarat legislative assembly, an MP in Delhi and the police commissioner of the state. She also tweets to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to keep him informed about her situation.

Incidentally, her story is among the many such ghastly attacks on doctors and health workers all over country since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. On April 8 two resident doctors of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Bhopal were accused of “spreading the virus,” and brutally beaten up by a policeman. Such attacks and other forms of abuses from spitting on doctors to pelting stones at them, hurling vulgar language towards female nurses, to ostracizing physicians and their families by their neighbours and suspension of doctors for protesting against lack of efficient medical equipment to fight the disease are on the rise.

The show of solidarity for health workers

The same people that are attacking doctors and health workers have stood in their balconies and clapped their hands, clanged thaalis (utensils), blew the conch, lit diyas and candles in appreciation of the work for risking their lives. But surely, given the history of the attacks on doctors in India in the recent past and during the COVID crisis, such gestures of solidarity seem farcical as it does on rhetoric and hypocrisy, and less of a genuinely intended compassion for the medics and their family.

So, has Prime Minister Modi failed to make his people understand the essence of such expressions of support going beyond mere ritualistic dedication? “When a nation stands in solidarity for us, it certainly feels nice, but the very purpose of it is defeated when we are beaten up, and have to work in the most vulnerable environment,” is how most doctors representing various medical professionals’ association responded to the above question.

But those that have gone through the grind like Dr Sanjibani, “such appreciations are not needed”, and instead there should be “precise laws and actions” to deal with such abuses and violations of the rights of doctors to life and to work. She candidly says, “first time I thought it was a psychological thing that people need to be united and we have nothing to lose, but after a string of violence in Indore, Hyderabad and then with me, I realized this is not working.” She also does not hide her disappointment about the second speech made by the Prime Minister which had “nothing precise like do’s and don’ts and also no mention of laws like the NSA etc. to punish the perpetrators of such forms of violence.”

This young assistant professor of psychiatry is of the firm belief that in India “stricter laws” are needed to sensitize people, something that many would not disagree given the complexities and duplicities of human nature, especially endemic to the Indian sub-continent if one may say so. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exposed the hypocrisies that forms part of our societies, and however much we deny the extreme selfishness we have exhibited during these trying times cannot be wished away.

Standing in your balconies and clapping is easy, it gives a false sense of patriotism and like it or not, when PM Modi with a huge following is asking you to do it, then everyone, even his adversaries do it. It’s surely more than the “fear of missing out syndrome” in a country where nationalism runs high. The real test of course is when you actually have to extend support on the ground and that’s when not many people do it.

“We can’t compare it with Spain where people clapped because they meant it,” says Dr Sanjibani as she broods how “in our country its more about self-preservation at any cost for most people and even it involves harassing others they are okay with it.”

Remembering the last days of Dr Sailo

No one knows how doctor Sailo had contracted the disease with the most likely hunch being, from one of his patients at Bethany hospital located in Shillong’s Nongrim Hills. Ironically, this is the same hospital the deceased doctor had founded in 2002 to make medical treatment affordable to all. He also started a Bethany outreach hospital in Nongpoh in the neighboruing Ri Bhoi district for the people of that area saving them precious money to come to Shillong or travelling to Guwahati for treatment. Besides he would also often times give free service to the poor and “told them not to worry as long as he is around,” remembered Puspha Hargovan who stays right opposite to his hospital in Nongrim Hills.

But the doctor’s contributions to society- he set up two other medical facilities, one in Nongpoh, the other in Ri Bhoi district besides his immense contributions to society became a thing of the past as the public, the media and social media community started to brutally vilify the family. Humanity seemed to disappear into thin air and it reached its nadir on April 15 when his family members had to plead to the people to allow them to conduct his last rites and give him that right he deserves.

The entire day of April 15, was marred by images of hundreds of people in the Jhalupara and Mawbah localities refusing to allow the body to be cremated at the electric crematorium in the fear of spreading the infection in the adjoining areas, while the district administration and the police grappling with an agitated and “misinformed” crowd, of more people comprising of the Dorbar Shnong (village durbar) Seng Longkmie (women’s organisation) and the Seng Samla (youth organisation) refusing to allow the body to buried in the doctor’s farmhouse near Nongpoh under Ri Bhoi district and the continuous trolls against the family on social media.

The moment Dr Sailo’s infection was made public, most people in Shillong went berserk. All along people were praying that Shillong be kept safe and away from the novel coronavirus radar. Now they were angry at the son-in-law Capt Wungthingthing S Arthur, a pilot with Air India who visited the family and stayed in Shillong “for carrying the virus” which they claimed to have infected Dr Sailo.

The deceased doctor had no recent travel history and this made the people more suspicious. “Arthur was trolled on social media with his image and those of the deceased doctor after reports of him being the first carrier of the virus in the state became the talk of the town,” writes the Economic Times in a report published on April 16.

However, apart from assumptions and rumours about such a possibility, there is no medical or scientific evidence to substantiate these claims. The vilification reached such heights that the son-in-law posted the most moving statement to the media wherein he wrote that, “It has been 12 hours since my father-in-law passed away, silently. My wife just lost her father. We do not know whether his cremation is over. We were not there to weep beside his body.” Arthur further clarified that he had undertaken all the tests on his return from his recent travel to the US on March 14 and his self-isolation in Shillong since March 24 until April 7, with no signs of COVID infection.

He also sent out important information relating to the infection of six of his wife’s family members who have tested positive, but that they have not been segregated and taken to quarantine and made to stay together under the same roof. He also makes a valid point when he says that one of the patients at the hospital could have transmitted the disease and efforts and energies should be directed at tracing and isolating the person instead of targeting the doctor’s family members.

Many are questioning what the government and the district administration has done so far. Could they not have prepared better? Where is the State Health Minister? What are the plans going forward?

On its part the Meghalaya government is doing its bit. Government officials have said that the Shillong premises of Bethany Hospitals, where Dr Sailo was admitted, and its second campus at Nongpoh in Ri Bhoi district, have been sealed and sanitised while all occupants of the two facilities have been quarantined inside the medical establishments.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma told media on Monday that, "approximately 2,000 contacts have been established,” as well as 200 primary contacts including the doctor’s immediate family members and those who had come in close contact with the patient. Director of Health Services Dr Aman War told this writer that contact tracing has begun and so far over 107 persons who came in contact with Dr Sailo have been tested and quarantined.

Meghalaya health officials have said that the family members of the deceased doctor who are under quarantine in their house in Shillong are being monitored through 108 hotline service and other stand operation procedures and “will be treated symptomatically.” A third sample of the son-in-law has been taken for testing and results are awaited. The first two tests reported negative.

But even as Meghalaya Chief Minister Sangma and his team do their work to contain the spread of the virus in Meghalaya, the human mind will continue to do its bit- it will invent ways to criticize, sling mud and become more inward looking. You like it or not, let’s accept it that people are after all not too alien to such behavior. We only need to look at our own history which has been the greatest witness to all of this.

Adversity it is said is the litmus test that decides whether we rise above the situation confronting us or we give in to our self-centric weaknesses, even if it were to be at the cost of abusing or even harming others.

The coronavirus crisis has brought out the best among many across the globe who are reaching out to help the poor, the needy, the marginalized and supporting their governments, health workers and the police, it has also brought out the worst in humans in some parts of the globe. Stigmatisation and attack on health workers, denigration and ostracizing COVID-19 infected persons and their entire families, racial attacks on people with oriental looks and social profiling are among the cruelest of responses that have been reported from different geographical realm.

Life is no bed of roses for health workers, it has never been in India where attacks on medics have become a regular feature. But the irony of it all is when a doctor’s pain and anguish tells you that one day, she would tell her son not to become a doctor (as narrated by Dr Sanjibani), “at least not in India,” if he asks for her opinion. It almost sounds like the death knell for the medical profession in India. If we are to treat it as an awakening call, then we must be prepared to shed the evil side from our persona and be ready to challenge many an alter ego that may come in the way and put our sense of reasoning to test.

(Bidhayak Das is a writer/journalist and a ‘human rights (citizenship rights) studies’ academic. His work and studies focus on South and South-East Asia, in particular Myanmar. He can be reached at bidhayak.d@gmail.com)

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