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Health workers are on the frontlines of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has taken over 90,000 lives across the world. Sikkim, so far, has been lucky to not have any positive cases and the state administration has performed fairly well in handling the situation. However, there are still gaps that need to be filled.

While the general public is doing its bit by staying home, those on the ground actively fighting the pandemic are putting themselves at risk every time they step out of their homes. Doctors, nurses, guards in hospitals, cleaning staff, ambulance drivers, police personnel, and so many more are now soldiers in this war against time. Till a vaccine or cure is found, the fight will continue. As of now, all we know is that it could take anywhere between 12-18 months for scientists to come up with a vaccine.

An Italian doctor recently warned that countries must protect their health workers or the entire health system will collapse, and if that happens, the fight will be over. Sadly, we are still hearing that in Sikkim, health workers are not being given the priority they so deserve.

A doctor working at STNM Hospital had to take to Facebook to vent her frustration at not being provided transportation.

This is what she wrote: “It’s lockdown time, and we the doctors are expected to reach hospital flying!! for someone like me(and there are so many others like me)who doesn’t know how to drive, it’s a difficult time. Why should my husband take the chance of getting infected, every time he drops me to the hospital..with a three year old kid in the house it’s a risk I have been forced to take..I wonder why in other cadres, where transportation facilities are given to the junior most officer, we at health, are the neglected lot….the fact that one pool vehicle caters to the entire emergency department and services speaks a lot about the priorities!!! So angry!!”

Other doctors and those who have a family member in the health sector, also commented on the post sharing similar views and experience of having to remind authorities about the need to arrange for proper transportation.

Why is bringing doctors to hospitals at a time like this even coming up as a problem?

There are far more important issues to be tackled like increasing testing for instance. Transporting health workers to work should be a given, not something that they should be reminding authorities about. Yes, there is the tokenism of a bus service, but it is just that, a token, routine gesture.

A week or so earlier, there was an incident in which a health worker was asked by an official to walk to work if she could not keep with the 4 o’clock deadline on vehicular movement. This was clearly a deadline decided by offices which did not understand the pressures or timings of health workers and enforced by officers who have no appreciation of how important health-workers are to Sikkim’s defences.

That issue, it is learnt, was resolved but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Just like government vehicles are requisitioned for election duty, a similar requisitioning should have been done for hospital duty when the lockdown was announced and government offices closed. Since so many departments are either shut or working with skeletal staff, there must be many government vehicles that are lying unused. Let’s say there aren’t any, taxis or even private vehicles could then be hired for transporting doctors to hospitals.

In the Facebook post, the doctor also points out that one pool-vehicle is being used to transport the entire emergency department. How is that safe or even advisable? When the rest of the public is being asked, even forced, to adhere to safety measures like wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, avoiding stepping out of the house, why are so many doctors being herded into one vehicle?

If this is how we are treating our health workers right now, one shudders to think of how things will be if the virus were to arrive here.

Our health workers deserve better – especially at a time like this.

(Tshering Eden is a features editor with Summit Times, an English daily newspaper from Sikkim. Views expressed are the author’s own)

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