A medical staffer checks a ventilator in an intensive care unit at a newly inaugurated hospital in Tamil Nadu state during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown. Photo: AFP/Arun Sankar

A nurse in the city of Kolkata in West Bengal recently learned first-hand the price that Indian health workers are paying for being first responders in the Covid-19 pandemic: an eviction notice.

The nurse’s landlord attempted to justify the 48-hour eviction order by claiming that health workers during the Covid-19 pandemic posed a significant risk of coronavirus transmission to their neighbors. Despite the fact that the nurse took pains to explain that she didn’t work in Covid-19 treatment sections of the hospital, “She would not listen to me,” the nurse said. “She told me … This is why thousands of people around the world have been infected. You have to leave the apartment.”

This shocking instance of stigmatization of India’s health workers at a time when their skills are essential in saving lives of patients who have contracted Covid-19 is not unique. Across India, doctors, nurses, and other health workers are facing eviction by landlords and neighbors who allow their fear and ignorance to drive them to grossly discriminate against health workers in their midst.

The problem has become so acute that the New Delhi-based Resident Doctors Association of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) warned on March 24 that the rising number of such evictions means that “many doctors are stranded in the road with all their luggage, with nowhere to go, across the country.”

But health workers aren’t just receiving eviction notices. They are also the targets of unlawful harassment and intimidation by neighbors who consider the presence of health workers in their communities an unacceptable risk during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A group of Dr Sanjibani Panigrahi’s neighbors intercepted her as she returned home from a hospital shift in the western city of Surat at the end of last month, threatening unspecified “consequences” if she continued working. Some hospital workers facing harassment and intimidation from their neighbors are now sleeping in their workplaces to avoid such confrontations.

Also read: India issues anti-harassment advisory amid virus crisis

It’s unconscionable that Indian health workers are facing public ostracism and homelessness for merely fulfilling their professional obligations during a global health crisis. Such abuse is not just unlawful, it demoralizes the key components of a national health system that was already dangerously stretched prior to the pandemic.

India’s ratio of doctors to citizens is one per 1,445, almost 50% below the World Health Organization’s recommended standard of one doctor per 1,000 citizens. Without robust government intervention, some Indian doctors may well decide that their safer course during the pandemic is to stop practicing in order to avoid the double risk of public hostility and possible coronavirus infection.

So far, the Indian government’s response to these abuses has been heavier on rhetoric than action. Home Minister Amit Shaw late last month instructed police in Delhi to protect doctors from unlawful eviction, but it’s uncertain how effective that order has been. The health minister issued a statement on March 24 via Twitter stating that he was “deeply anguished” by reports that “doctors and paramedics are being ostracized in residential complexes” and urged the public not to panic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also spoken out in defense of health workers facing unlawful eviction due to coronavirus fears by stating that “In this time of crisis, any person wearing a white coat in a hospital is an incarnation of God.”

But despite Modi’s evocation of the divine in defense of Indian health workers, eviction is just one of the problems they face during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like clinicians elsewhere, Indian health workers are deeply concerned about unsafe work conditions created by the worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including surgical masks and N95 respirators. Those shortages have been so acute that some health workers in India have resorted to wearing raincoats and motorcycle helmets in the absence of surgical gowns and masks.

The shortages have prompted numerous Indian health workers to speak out publicly about the lack of protective gear and to demand accountability for those shortfalls and swift government action to remedy them. However, as in other countries, some Indian health workers who have spoken out for adequate PPE have reported reprisals for doing so. In an April 6 letter to Prime Minister Modi, the  Resident Doctors Association of the AIIMS complained that health workers “have received a harsh backlash” for going public with their concerns about PPE inadequacies.

India’s health workers deserve better. As the country faces what health experts warn will be an “onslaught” of coronavirus infections over the coming weeks, the onus is on the government to protect its health workers in every way possible and to defend their ethical obligation to speak out about safety risks.

Phelim Kine is the director of research and investigations at Physicians for Human Rights and a former deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He is also an adjunct professor in the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.

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