Simon Hercules succumbed to COVID-19 on Sunday after battling the infection for two weeks. A neurosurgeon based in Chennai, Hercules had reportedly contracted the disease from a patient — a hazard medical professionals mentally brace themselves for when called to the frontlines of the battle against the coronavirus. But increasingly, during the course of this battle, healthcare workers have become vulnerable to dangers they did not sign up for — stigmatisation and violence. On Tuesday, this paper reported that a mob attacked the Chennai doctor’s family members when they were performing his last rites. Elsewhere in the country, medical workers have faced physical threats while doing their work. The Union government has done well to acknowledge this situation. On Thursday, it approved an ordinance to make violence against medical professionals “a cognisable and non-bailable offence”. The penal provisions include jail terms ranging from three months to seven years and fines ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakh. These measures will, no doubt, boost the morale of healthcare workers, who put in gruelling hours at great personal risk. But at the same time, the government shouldn’t lose sight of the need to create awareness about the disease and the strategies to combat it, which can help counter the spread of fear and prejudice.
History shows that during pandemics the fear of contracting infections can bring out the worst in human beings. Last month, some Air India staffers were asked to vacate their homes because they crewed flights to evacuate Indians from hot zones. There have been disturbing reports of Muslims and people from the Northeast being targeteded. And in a country where people do not have adequate faith in the public health system, the medical professional’s work has been made more arduous, even dangerous. For instance, last month this paper reported that fear of “being injected by the virus” was one of the reasons for people attacking a team of doctors in Indore. Tempers calmed, somewhat, after local religious leaders intervened, but these matters have not always been resolved amicably. In the second week of April, the police had to step in after a doctor was accused of “spreading the virus” and assaulted while buying groceries in a South Delhi locality.
Combating a pandemic requires forging of social solidarities. Reaching out to people with timely and clear communication — even when it is about risks and uncertainties — holds the key. It’s well-known now that communication and community participation played a decisive role in Kerala’s relative success against the coronavirus. Even as it frames strategies of deterrence to curb violence against medical professionals, the government should explore means to nudge society towards developing empathy for their work.