Doctors and medical staff of Narayan Swaroop Hospital hold placards to protest against the recent assaults on health workers in different parts of the country. Photo: AFP/Sanjay Kanojia

MUMBAI – India’s government has strengthened a law aimed at punishing people for attacking doctors and health workers, as fears of catching the coronavirus has led to numerous attacks in the country.

Anyone convicted of attacking health workers now faces a seven-year jail term.

However, for some in the medical profession, the new law has come too late.

Dr K Pradeep Kumar was in tears as he recounted the mob attack on him and family members during the burial of a doctor who died after caring for patients afflicted with coronavirus in the southern Indian town of Chennai. 

“A mob of almost 70 people attacked us and family members of a doctor with sticks and stones, forcing us to shift from the burial ground,” he said, recounting the incident on national television and in other interviews.

The crowd reappeared at the second burial ground too, forcing Dr Pradeep to drive a damaged hearse to fetch policemen to guard the final rites of his friend. 

Doctors and medical workers across the country have been sporadically attacked, sneered at and taunted by neighbors and others as being potential carriers of the virus. In one incident, a group of young boys chased some medical staff and hurled rocks and abuse at them in Indore in central India. In another incident, doctors returning from duty were jeered at and abused by neighbors in a New Delhi neighborhood. 

While incidents of violence against doctors and medical workers is not new in India, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the violence against doctors, nurses and other medical workers across India has received more publicity, and public outrage, forcing the government to pass a law with stricter punishments. 

The new law provides a jail sentence of up to seven years, in addition to a financial penalty. Offenders would have to compensate up to double the amount of the medical property they damaged. Most significantly, offenders would not get bail until a court decides the punishment. 

Cases of coronavirus have afflicted more than 20,711 people across the country, most of them in the western state of Maharashtra and the national capital of Delhi. A total of 681 have died from Covid-19. The country has been in a national lockdown since April 24 and social distancing has been recommended. 

“It reflects frustration with medical services and also a reflection of the general breakdown of the doctor-patient relationship,’’ said Dvani Mehta, co-founder of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a New Delhi-based legal think tank which helps the government reform laws. “The doctors don’t have enough facilities and hospitals don’t have any grievance address mechanism.’’

Mehta said the latest law may act as a deterrent, although its effectiveness over a period of time could be limited. 

“Most of these kinds of violence are not pre-meditated and are often caused by a rush of emotion at the frustration of helplessness and is often prompted by the death of a relative,” said Mehta.

India faces a severe shortage of medical services, with inexpensive but unhygienic public services. Privately owned hospitals and other medical services are often prohibitively expensive and many patients and relatives complain of unnecessary tests and stays in hospital inflate the bills. 

Brookings India Centre estimates India has 0.55 beds per 1,000 of the population.