As Delhi heads for a case load of half a lakh and 80 per cent of ICU beds are filled, the health crisis is being intensified with nurses in the capital’s private hospitals reportedly resigning or refusing to work. In some cases, nursing home owners are doubling up as janitors, while others are going to the police to complain that nurses are abandoning patients. However, the plight of nurses, who have been working at the front in the battle against COVID-19, must be appreciated. Their complaints are well-known, have been repeatedly articulated and remain largely ignored. Personal protection equipment has been in chronically short supply in the capital, and has put the lives of both doctors and nurses at risk. Shifts are punishingly long, nurses in PPEs cannot take breaks even to go to the toilet, and they bear the cicatrice of the equipment for hours after they go off duty. The United Nurses Association had written to the chief minister about substandard equipment, but did not get a reply. Many nurses who were not able to go to work when public transport was suspended had their pay docked.
Besides, nurses cannot be seen in isolation. They have families, too. Most of them are from out of town, and relatives back home worry for their well-being because the pandemic has been presented as a “mahamari” — a great killer. Nurses living alone in Delhi are themselves insecure because they do not have social security or family networks that they can fall back on in hard times. Those who have family in the capital are concerned because they are generally not able to quarantine themselves in the workplace, and could carry the infection home. To offset the multiple risks that they are facing, some nurses are demanding better financial terms, on the lines of the “hardship allowance” which is commonly offered to servicemen at difficult postings. Others are simply dropping out to seek better qualifications.
Abandoning patients during a pandemic may be a crime but nurses feel abandoned themselves. The solution is to see that they are physically secure and feel adequately compensated for the high-risk job that they are performing. If private organisations cannot bear the full burden, the state should remember that it has commandeered their facilities because of the failure of its own health system, and commit to bear part of it.
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