The outbreak of the Wuhan virus has stretched the medical facilities of nations to their extremities. Doctors, nurses and medical professionals leading the fightback against the deadly pandemic are working under tremendous pressure. However, the thanks they received from the public and government is in the form of ostracization, arrests, attacks and gag orders.
It is not an issue limited to a single nation. The persecution and attacks on medical professionals have occurred in varying degrees of severity in different countries. Relatives of patients and patients too have not been sparing. This situation has repeated itself many times over.
As the story of the Wuhan virus began in China, one of the earliest incidents of clamping down on assertions and grievances aired by the medical community occurred in China.
The initial outbreak of pneumonia like disease caused by a viral pathogen was recorded by doctors in November 2019. Late Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the first people along with seven others to go public about the emergence of a SARS like virus. They feared a repeat of the epidemic in 2002 where thousands of people succumbed to the disease.
But Chinese authorities were busy suppressing the news to paint a picture of normalcy. Whistleblowers like Dr. Wenliang and the others were picked up by the police for allegedly spreading rumours. They were forced to give signed statements stating they would not indulge in such activities. This attempt to cover-up has cost the world dearly.
As of today, there are more than 22 million cases and nearly 800,000 deaths related to the virus because China wanted to celebrate its Lunar New Year. Instead of alerting the world to a possible outbreak of an epidemic. A chat room conversation by Dr. Wenliang with his alumni about a SARS like virus causing respiratory ailments saw him arrested . In custody, the doctor was diagnosed with coronavirus. He succumbed to the disease as he wasn’t provided treatment for failing to fall in line.
Few months later, when the world was in lockdown, a new news report shed more light on the Chinese coverup. She was one among the group of eight doctors earlier arrested. She was Dr. Ai Fen. In an interview to Ren Wu, a magazine owned by People’s Daily, the largest newspaper group in China; she criticized the policy of censorship adopted by the government of China. On the issue of how clamping down on information delayed the response in containing the outbreak of the epidemic.
But China does not like dissent. As it happens in China, the doctor went missing. Missing is a euphemism for being in custody for not toeing the government stand in China. The brutal tactics of suppression of the Chinese regime manage to garner headlines. This time though tactics to suppress information is more of a global trend.
Governments across the world are trying to control the narrative and indicate they have the situation in control. But they are unable to digest any criticism. The criticism of the government apparatus is centered around two issues. Doctors treating the COVID-19 patients challenged governments if they were not making full disclosure of the data on the rate of infections affecting their state or country.
The other issue on which the doctors raised their voice is to bring the attention to the lack of facilities and the medical equipment such as the PPE kits. So that the current crisis does not snowball into a disaster.
People in power though do not like their mistakes highlighted. A few examples might put it in perspective.
The case of Anastasia Vasilyeva is a point in order. Russia, a democracy under a dictatorial rule, still has a hangover of its Soviet past. They have yet to learn to handle dissent. Ms. Vasilyeva, the head of a doctors’ union was detained for criticising the government’s response to the pandemic.
She alleged that the government was lying to the people about the pandemic. She leveled allegations of underreporting of numbers of cases to hide the real extent of the crisis. It resulted in her being picked up by the police. She was conducting a survey to check the preparedness of provincial hospitals and supply medical workers with safety equipment at the time of her arrest. An eye-witness account stated that she was ambushed by the police and was dragged forcefully to the police station. The witness also said that Ms. Vasilyeva had lost consciousness during the altercation. And alleged that the police tried to strangle her.
A few thousand kilometers away in the city of Cairo, doctors gave a statement to the media on the poor working conditions in hospitals that were reeling under stress from treating the coronavirus patients. The leveled allegations of underreporting of cases against the government.
These doctors received threats on their phones and in some cases, at their homes. They received official letters stating that their absence during their shifts or airing their grievances and disclosing lapses would see them behind bars.
India was not spared this ignominy either. The state of West Bengal governed by the temperamental Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did try to hide figures. Disregarding established protocol she formed a special medical audit team. This exercise was an effort bring down the death toll due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
The mismanagement of the crisis in West Bengal gained attention after a video from Bangur Hospital in Kolkata went viral. A patient admitted in the hospital shot a video which showed dead bodies lying around for hours. He posted in on the micro blogging site Twitter. A retweet by Union Minister, Babul Supriyo, who was elected from the state prompted the Bengal government to act.
The government acted by the targeting the Union Minister and the Central government. Then Mamata Banerjee went after the media. She took channels off air, tied up publications in lawsuits and got an editor arrested. West Bengal in recent times has not been safe for the political opponents of the state government.
Doctors and nurses had gag orders passed against them. It was done subtly in the name of safety. They were not allowed to carry their phones into COVID wards lest they too get infected from touching their phones. But it was a precautionary measure to avoid further embarrassment.
Shifting to the other coast, reports doctors being attacked in hospitals in Maharashtra made headlines. An elected representative to the Maharashtra Assembly was creating ruckus under the guise of social responsibility. He barged into the hospital with his supporters. They attacked the medical staff and manhandled the doctor. The altercation happened because the hospital did not respond to his calls. So, he decided to teach the hospital staff a lesson. The incident was repeated later by a corporator from another political party.
Though the most chilling tale of harassment of medical professionals by an elected government came from the state of Andhra Pradesh. Dr. Sudhakar Rao was working in a hospital in Visakhapatnam taking care of COVID-19 patients. He reported on the scarcity of masks and PPE kits on social media.
He paid a massive price for going public with it. The government suspended him with immediate effect after the incident was brought to their notice. A month later he was arrested on the charges of public nuisance. At the scene, he was attacked, his shirt was torn, and he was tied with ropes. The police along with people gathered around assaulted him.
Later, he saw put in asylum for creating nuisance. His family alleged that he was being tortured within the asylum. During his stay in the asylum, he wrote a letter to the medical superintendent stating that he was forcibly being given antipsychotics. A case was registered against the police by the CBI for excessive use of force.
The patients piled on the misery as well. Doctors and nurses were attacked by unruly patients and their relatives during their stay in the hospital. With the sensitivity of the situation in mind the government amended the Epidemic Act to ensure the safety of medical workers. Any attack on them by patients and relatives was now punishable upto seven years in jail.
Doctors and nurses were subjected to humiliation outside their workspace as well. The fear of the spread of the virus saw many residential welfare societies throw these people out of their homes. Overnight, they lost the roof over their heads. Where they could follow through with it, they practiced a policy of ostracization. The police had to intervene many a time. Until the resident welfare societies were threatened with arrests that practice did not abate.
Despite facing threats of intimidation and violence, being subjected to humiliation and staring at unpaid dues and pay cuts, the medical community soldiers on in treating the patients with utmost care. They continue to perform a thankless and selfless job in the face of great adversity.