“It’s a new day! I’m still praying for you to come home safely to me. I need you mommy…”
The New York Times documented these heartbreaking last words that Madhvi Aya’s daughter wrote to her in March, as she laid in her hospital bed all alone, fighting Coronavirus. This was in Long Island, in the US, and the text – a haunting documentation of personal toll that the pandemic has taken on the lives of frontline healthcare workers – somehow attained a universal relatability.
As doctors, nurses, and paramedic staff all over the world tackle the COVID-19 outbreak with scarily limited resources, a common theme has emerged – one that touches upon the life-risking situation under which the health care professionals are working. It also talks of the absolute lack of empathy towards them.
In India alone, where the total number of Coronavirus cases has crossed 67,000 with 2,206 deaths, as of writing this, the pandemic is reported to have affected more than 500 doctors, nurses, and paramedics across the country. The crisis, weighing heavy on the back of an already bent economy, has particularly taken a toll on the frontline staff, namely the nurses.
Delhi, by far, accounts for the maximum number of nurses testing positive - with 35 cases- followed by Mumbai where another 27 nurses have been infected, as per media reports.
For a country with a poor track record in medical infrastructure and facing an acute shortage of skilled staff and workers, these statistics undoubtedly paint a bleak picture. Its severity is only exaggerated by the many challenges facing the nursing community at the moment. From long working hours to unhygienic accommodation and the poor quality of food provided while on duty and during quarantine, subpar amenities continues to reign supreme.
What ails the healthcare backbone
A slew of factors, some of which show preparatory inefficiency, have dealt a blow to the healthcare infrastructure in India.
In Mumbai’s PG Hinduja Hospital for instance, alleged irresponsibility on part of the management has resulted in nurses staging a protest outside the hospital building. Their demands are not many – admit infected staffers in the same hospital and COVID-19 testing for all staff.
“We want to be treated in the same manner as other patients. We are working on the frontline, helping doctors and taking care of COVID-19 patients; but the hospital has shrugged off its responsibility towards us, which is wrong,” one of the nurses was quoted.
Her account is not outrageous in the light of a global pandemic nor is it very different from that of others in her line of profession, battling similar bureaucratic loopholes. An Indian news site, citing a video shared by a nurse from a reputed Delhi hospital, indicated how nurses have been cooped up together on single beds in a cramped hall.
Around 10-15 people who were living in that situation were left with no option other than sharing a single toilet-cum-bathroom, according to the nurse. Similar stories of inhuman living conditions and improper facilities for people who are risking their lives in the fight against Coronavirus, have also emerged from the national capital region.
While the Delhi government, on the heels of an outage, have allocated alternate accommodation in hotels and at the Gujrati Samaj, it still remains that these frontline workers are living on meagre means, tackling a deadly infection with insufficient PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) kits, masks and sanitization measures.
The emotional toll of the pandemic
In the line of duty, India’s skilled and trained nurses – comprising a significant portion of internationally educated nurses working overseas, second to nurses trained in Philippines, according to a WHO report – are gambling more than their lives. It is imperative that the world recognises and acknowledges the human cost of the coronavirus pandemic.
People who survive, especially those observing this disease unfold in close quarters, have to live with the grief of losing family and colleagues, and a constant fear of catching the infection. Even if PPEs and other safety gears add a layer of protection, the challenge of working long shifts, sometimes lasting even 10-12 hours each, while clad in non-breathable gown, glovers, masks, and goggles, still takes a toll on the stamina, adding to fatigue and undue exhaustion.
Also, long hours in PPEs mean no water breaks and no loo breaks, “You feel like your whole body is on fire,” a nurse has told a news site. “It gets really hot and it is hard to breathe. You start to feel suffocated,” another added.
When it all comes to an end though, after a long day of treating and caring for people fighting a fatal disease, one might expect some respite. But it is a dismal reality we are looking at, one where nurses and medical professionals are abused and attacked, as panic and phobia get the better of people.
Indore has 76% of MP's #COVID patients, but after Ranipura again locals attacked health officials @ChouhanShivraj @DGP_MP @ndtvindia #COVID19Pandemic #CoronaKoDhona #COVIDIOTS pic.twitter.com/GPDMqEfBaM
— Anurag Dwary (@Anurag_Dwary) April 2, 2020
What’s worse, it doesn’t stop at the workplace. As panic makes way for discrimination, nurses and frontline workers have found themselves walking a tightrope between duty and personal safety, worried and scared for their own lives and that of their families. It sure gives the faith in humanity a rigorous shake but doesn’t deter these selfless workers from their purpose – caring for the ailed and saving lives.
(Edited by Athira Nair)