Three months into the new year, the country announced it was going into a state of lockdown for a temporary period, which eventually got extended to several more weeks. As of August 2020, India has gone through many phases of lockdown and unlockdown, with several restrictions, new guidelines and policies, all to make sure it deals with the ongoing global health crisis effectively.
The COVID-19 pandemic waged an unprecedented war, which is being fought unceasingly by the country’s healthcare sector. The efforts of the frontline warriors have been nothing short of heroic, but they also come at a cost. Since March 2020, doctors, nurses and other healthcare officials have been fighting night and day to keep patients alive, to contain the spread of the virus — often getting infected themselves — to educate people on proper hygiene and social distancing norms, to allay their fears and doubts, and to offer both physical and psychological support.
Independence (or lack thereof) has assumed a new meaning this year for everyone around the country and the world. This Independence Day, therefore, we look at how COVID frontline warriors have been walking in and out of wards every single day; of how they have faced stigma, and how they continue to serve nonetheless, and if the meaning of the day and freedom have changed in any way for them.
“I have been working every day since March. We were one of the first ones in India to receive the patients — Italian patients who had come in,” says Dr Yatin Mehta, Chairman, Institute of Critical Care and Anaesthesiology, Medanta Hospital.
“For me, freedom means political and psychological, along with freedom of thought and expression — these are important for us as doctors and healthcare workers, just like how it is for society. When something is not right, we should have the freedom to express it. In some of the hospitals, the staff was not provided with PPE kits, for instance. And people could not open their mouths. There is something called freedom to life, and this case, there was a threat to this freedom. If you want to give good care to the COVID-positive patients, you ought to protect the warriors also,” he says.
Dr Mehta goes on to say that while every PPE is not the same, healthcare workers must be allowed the freedom to openly ask for good-quality kits. “And nobody has the right or the ‘freedom’ to beat doctors. On a personal level, I would be happy for the pandemic to end, and for me to go on a vacation with my family.”
Dr Manoj Arora, the Additional Director of Nephrology at Fortis Hospital Shalimar Bagh says all doctors want independence from the novel coronavirus this year. “We all wish to be free, but this is not to say that we become negligent; we have to be strict while yearning for freedom. We need to be more disciplined this year, if we really want to be independent and fight with the virus,” he says.
He advises that people exercise caution when stepping out, maintain proper distance, hand hygiene, etc. “As a doctor, I want the general public to be in good health. We are fighting with an invisible enemy. Doctors cannot help but to go to hospitals daily. They cannot enjoy time with their family or work from home. While people were preferring online consultations until recently, they are now insisting on visiting hospitals because they think the virus has been vanquished. As doctors, we are busier than ever before and there is no time to spend with the family. Having said that, we are also aware that our foremost duty is towards our patients — that cannot change. This is a war and just like soldiers, we also serve the country first and then come our families and relatives,” he shares with indianexpress.com.
Bhagyashree Kubal, a staff nurse at the Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, says that when she was first posted in the COVID ward, she was a bit tense, but it has been five months since. “I always wanted to work in the ward, but when I actually got posted, I wondered how I was going to manage wearing the PPE gear for six to seven hours every day. But I was determined, and my family supported me a lot, too. I stayed at the hospital’s hostel and also had to quarantine for 14 days whenever my patients’ report would come back positive,” she shares.
Before the pandemic, Kubal says doctors and nurses did not have to wear PPE kits, and that is the freedom she misses the most. “I used to greet patients with a ‘good morning’, and shook their hands, too. They could see me smile; I could hold their bare hands and offer support. This would help them heal faster; all of that has stopped,” she rues, while adding that because of the fear of infection, she has to maintain strict social distancing from her family as well. “I also often get some temporary scars on my face, because of the PPE kits.”
In Noida’s Super Speciality Paediatric Hospital — a COVID-19-dedicated hospital at the moment — Dr Sohini Ghosh, a senior resident doctor, says when she first started seeing patients in March, it was a 14-day cycle of ward duty, followed by quarantine, which has been done away with. “I always believed that since I am a doctor, I am independent. But even then, I was somehow dependent on my family and my husband. But, over the last few months, my life has changed. I cannot meet anybody — I have not met my husband, my parents or even my friends in a long time. But, I also feel they know that I can take care of myself, and now so many patients are dependent on me. That is the real meaning of independence for me. And God forbid, if something were to happen to any family member, I know I would be able to take complete care of them, too,” she says.
Dr Ghosh, however, shares that she had a few things planned this year, which had to be postponed. “I had thought of starting a family this year, but because of the pandemic, everything has come to a standstill,” she says, adding she has to spend at least 12 hours in the COVID ward every day.
It is true that for doctors around the world, their work has increased manifold amid the pandemic. Dr Indraneel Raut, Additional Director, Critical Care Medicine at the Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre is of the opinion that the true meaning of freedom is when a person can live their life without any constraints. “This year, freedom would especially mean freedom from COVID-19 for everyone which, in turn, would lead to freedom from COVID duties for us. There is no doubt that COVID has severely impacted the healthcare industry. Doctors around the world have been working day and night to make sure quality care can be provided to all patients. Freedom from COVID duties would be the much-needed respite that the healthcare community needs,” he says.