Corona warriors have a real fight on their hands in a country battling on more than one front. India is grappling with surging cases with limited means to fight back. The latest jump adds 100,000 Covid-19 cases every four days.
India leads the global count behind the US and Brazil. From the present 938,000 cases, India could close the week with a million-plus.
Leading the battle lines against the virus are doctors, healthcare workers, police officers, bankers and essential supplies personnel.
It’s been a tough year for doctors. More than 1,300 have been infected and almost 100 lost their lives battling to save others, mainly because of the ignorance and carelessness of patients. Other causes include the pathetic state of public medical facilities.
“The medical fraternity has been in a crisis,’’ said Dr Rajan Sharma, president of the Indian Medical Association. “India faces a unique challenge as it never invested sufficiently in healthcare. Health was simply never a priority in the past.’’
Of the doctors who died, 52 were general practitioners and 45 specialists who might have been infected by someone unaware of being a carrier.
As the virus struck, even doctors were baffled and independent practitioners stayed away from their clinics. Many of them now prefer to treat patients through telemedicine. The government issued guidelines for telemedicine on March 25, the day it announced a countrywide lockdown that ended almost two months later.
Besides ignorance, the limited availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep doctors safe was a factor. In March, India produced almost no PPE, and healthcare workers faced discrimination and open hostility for being in contact with Covid-19 patients.
Today, India is among the biggest producers of PPE kits. Almost 600 companies make a total of half a million PPE suits every day.
The Indian Medical Association has registered 70% of all healthcare workers across the country, and represents 345,000 doctors. It has now set up a National Covid Registry that will help it track infections, treatment and recoveries.
Fifty-one staff members at Mumbai-based Bhatia Hospital got infected in March simply because of a negligent patient who hid his overseas travel and illness. Several doctors and nurses resigned, and other staff refused to attend the hospital, forcing it to shut for more than a month. Hospital managers still remain nervous about the rise in cost of retaining staff.
Fearing similar challenges, many smaller nursing homes and clinics closed, increasing problems for society.
Police were critical in enforcing the lockdown but did so without upgraded training or protective equipment other than basic masks.
Routine exposure to non-sanitized equipment and long hours makes them particularly vulnerable. In Maharashtra alone as many as 1,212 policemen were infected and 82 succumbed to the virus. The state has 268,000 cases, or about 29% of total cases in India.
Public transport is another key area exposing employees to high risk. In Mumbai, more than 1,000 municipal bus drivers and conductors are infected. Unions say 86 employees died.
Bank staff is another set of corona warriors who face daily risks of infection. While customers avoided large purchases and used online portals for provisions, the need for cash remains large among the less affluent and tech-savvy.
Unofficial data suggests 57 bank workers have died across the country. Employee unions of government owned banks are seeking greater insurance limits to cover for the illness and protection for family members and for fatalities.
While the government raised compensation for Covid-19 death to five million rupees for all state-run employees, the same is not available to bankers.
The Bank Employees Federation of India has been calling for safety gear for all frontline workers, a stronger public healthcare system and educating the masses to reduce the need to visit branches.