Low wages, 24-hour shifts and a severe shortage of staff and protective gear have left many doctors on the front lines of India’s brutal pandemic near the breaking point and fearful for their lives.
Coronavirus infections have killed at least 165,000 people in the vast South Asian nation that houses some of the world’s most densely populated cities since early April.
Although India’s latest COVID-19 surge has eased recently, nearly 3,000 people are still dying every day and the chronically underfunded healthcare system is under severe strain.
“We are overworked, stressed and very scared,” Dr Radha Jain told AFP news agency in the capital New Delhi.
The Indian Medical Association said more than 1,200 doctors have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, including more than 500 in the past two months.
Dr Deependra Garg, who works on the outskirts of New Delhi, already knows how dire the situation has become.
His 48-year-old wife Anubha, herself a doctor, fell ill with COVID-19 in April.
He began treatment at home but as his condition worsened, he, like many other families, struggled to find a hospital bed.
He eventually found one about 200 kilometers (120 mi) from his home. But Anubha, who was fully vaccinated, died within two weeks, leaving her 12-year-old daughter.
“We are on the front lines 24/7. We are exposed to a high virus load but we have to continue working against all odds as we have chosen this profession,” said Garg.
“we have no choice.”
underfunded and overstretched
The pandemic has exposed structural vulnerabilities in India’s healthcare system, particularly in ill-equipped government hospitals.
As the latest outbreak spread, reports emerged from low-staffed hospitals of patients lying on the floor and sharing beds in overcrowded wards, as family members protected only by cotton masks cared for their stricken loved ones.
The government spends less than 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on healthcare, one of the lowest rates in the world.
According to the World Bank, in 2017 India had just 0.8 doctors per 1,000 people – about the same level as Iraq. The two other countries hardest-hit by the coronavirus, Brazil and the United States, had 2.2 and 2.6 respectively.
A pre-pandemic report by the US-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy estimated that India needed 600,000 more doctors and two million additional nurses to meet its healthcare needs.
Dr Shekhar Kumar, who works at a private hospital in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said junior staff and final year medical students sometimes have to work in 24-hour shifts.
“Compared to last year, this time patients need to stay in the hospital for a longer period, which is increasing the burden on the staff,” Kumar said.
He said he was further pulled when his colleagues fell ill with the virus.
Doctors said they were forced to choose which patients to be rescued first as they struggled with inadequate supplies of medicine and oxygen.
Ravikant Singh, founder of a charity group that helped set up a COVID-19 field hospital, said he struggled to sleep for some nights.
“It has been a life-changing situation for the doctors,” Singh told AFP.
“The worst part was … we couldn’t save many lives because of the lack of oxygen.”
Even after completing their serving sentences, doctors said they worried about infecting their families at home.
Kumar said he would constantly think about how the virus was “hidden somewhere and everywhere”.
“If doctors can’t save their own life, how will they save the lives of others?” he said.
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