Coronavirus crisis, a lost opportunity?

Doctors protests 571 855

Amidst the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the media is filled with news of attacks on healthcare workers and professionals. To a nation with a very short span of memory, it should be reminded that it is not a new or sudden phenomenon. It has been happening since a long time in this country and also has been the center of media attention time and again.

What has been different this time is making it as a tool to vilify a certain community and practice, the inherent systemic islamophobia presented by a large section of media and by some political personalities. The attacks won’t stop until addressed properly as the problem is not with some people but is structural in nature.

To understand that, we need to first ponder upon the situation of the healthcare system in India right now. According to the National Health Profile 2019 compiled by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (CBHI), India has only 1 government doctor for every 10,926 people while the WHO recommended doctor population ratio stands at 1:1000. While in states such as Bihar, the situation gets grimmer as it has only one allopathic doctor serving 43,788 people. At the same time, if we talk of hospital beds, there are a total of 7,13,986 government hospital beds in India, amounting to 0.55 beds per 1000 people. While the national average may sound abysmally low, states such as Bihar again have 0.11 beds available per 1000 people.

There is widespread distrust among the poor towards the state. The representatives of the state in the shanties, poor colonies and slums are mostly the police, which often acts in a barbaric way to them. The section of society which eats hand to mouth is entirely dependent on government healthcare facilities which are in poor condition. Every year there are multiple news reports of hospitals where dozens of kids die due to lack of proper healthcare infrastructure and preparation. More than 150 children died in just the first three weeks of June due to acute encephalitis in Muzaffarpur and surrounding districts last year. The continued death of children in upcoming months followed. The sudden sparked outcry and media attention to this annual phenomenon led to uncovering of the tragic state of affairs which was ongoing since years.

JK Lon Hospital in Kota came into limelight with reports of multiple kids dying in December last year but the record shows that nearly 1,100 infants died on an average every year in the same hospital in last six years. Same happened in Gorakhpur when in 2017, 61 children died within 72 hours at a government hospital. In the meantime, several reports reflected upon the extremely unhygienic conditions of these hospitals, bad infrastructure and lack of beds of patients.

The spending on health in India has always remained low and is 1.28 percent of GDP, registering a slight increase from 1.12 percent in 2009-10. While what is notable to observe is the per capita public expenditure of health in nominal terms have gone up from RS 621 in 2009-10 to RS 1657 in 2017-18 suggesting an increase in the cost of treatments leading to inequality in access to healthcare services.

While the poor are not the only one at the receiving end of this state of bad affairs and extremely stressed infrastructure, the sufferers, time and again, also have been the doctors. Attacks on doctors have been normalized and common in this country. Just last year there was a countrywide strike of doctors rattling the nation and paralyzing the health infrastructure. But the attacks have been much more common than the media attention and strikes have been the only way to go with for doctors but lately ineffective in shaking up the system.

The brunt of not falling into state priorities is not only borne by the poor but also by the healthcare workers leading to stressed life, insecurity and fear of attacks. According to a survey done by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), 62 percent of the doctors who answered the survey reported that they were unable to see their patients without any fear of violence, and 57 percent had also considered hiring security staff at their workplace. Due to increasing incidents of violence against doctors, the main cause of stress for them was fear of violence followed by the fear of being sued. IMA also states that around three out of every four doctors face verbal or physical abuse in hospital premises.

We must also not forget that the same healthcare workers of Indian state forcefully vasectomized a large number of Muslim men at the time of emergency and created a distrust which state has never attempted to bridge. There also have been multiple reports of deceiving women into performing hysterectomy by doctors in various parts of the country. Several reports suggest it to be a rampant practice, as something common with states having large poor or tribal populations such as Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh.

The much talked about repulsion towards the polio program in the decade of the 1990s has also been from the most marginalized and minority communities due to rumors and distrust towards the system. The gap was bridged with a limited dialogue building process and did not happen in a day. The poor and minority communities are most prone to misinformation and rumors, the past conduct of the state also acts into play and creates a favourable ground for it. The only way out is an initiation of measures to build trust which always are time taking and tests the commitment of the state.

This current Coronavirus crisis acted as an opportunity for us to revisit our priorities resulting in an emphasis on creating and upgrading the public-funded health infrastructure in this country. It also has the potential to initiate a dialogue and trust-building process to bridge the communication gap between the state and the poor and marginalized. But as of now, our priorities of us as a society reflect through primetime vilification of minorities through prime-time slots on news channels, slapping arbitrary NSA on people said to be involved in attacks and firing of doctors who voice their opinion about lack of adequate infrastructure. If the state of affairs remains the same, this crisis would be remembered as a crisis of lost opportunities.

Neel Madhav is a third-year student of Journalism at the Delhi School of Journalism, University of Delhi.




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