Low pay, a 24-hour shift, a severe shortage of staff, and protective gear have forced many doctors on the brink of a severe Indian epidemic near the turning point, fearing for their lives.
Coronavirus infections have killed at least 165,000 people since the beginning of April in the vast country of South Asia, home to some of the world’s most populous cities.
Although the latest COVID-19 wave in India has recently subsided, with around 3,000 people dying every day, the chronically underfunded health care system remains under severe pressure.
“We are very overwhelmed, tense, very scared,” Rada Jain, a doctor in New Delhi, told AFP.
The Indian Medical Association says more than 1,200 doctors have died from COVID-19 since the outbreak began, including more than 500 in the past two months.
New Delhi suburban doctor Deependra Garg knows how serious the situation has become.
His 48-year-old wife, Anuba, was a doctor who contracted COVID-19 in April.
They began to treat him at home, but as his condition worsened, he, like many other families, struggled to get a hospital bed.
Eventually, he found them almost 200 miles from their home. But Anuba, who was fully vaccinated, died within two weeks, leaving their 12-year-old daughter.
“We are at the forefront 24/7. “We are under a lot of the virus, but we have to keep working against all the odds because we have chosen this profession,” Garg said.
“We have no choice.”
Underfunded և Overloaded
The epidemic revealed structural weaknesses in India’s healthcare system, particularly in poorly equipped public hospitals.
When the latest outbreak spread, word came from short-lived hospitals lying on the floor, with beds in overcrowded wards as family members, protected only by cotton masks, cared for their injured loved ones.
The government spends less than 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health, one of the lowest rates in the world.
In 2017, India had only 0.8 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, which according to the World Bank is about the same level as Iraq. The other two countries most affected by the coronavirus, Brazil and the United States, had 2.2 և 2.6, respectively.
A pre-epidemic report from the US-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy estimates that India needs more than 600,000 doctors and two million additional nurses to meet its health needs.
Dr. Shekhar Kumar, working with a private hospital in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said junior staff և senior medical students sometimes had to work 24-hour shifts.
“Compared to last year, this time patients need to stay in the hospital longer, which increases the workload,” said Kumar.
He added that they were later stretched when their colleagues became infected with the virus.
Doctors said they were traumatized, having to choose which patients to save first because they were exposed to insufficient medication and oxygen.
RAVICANT SING, the founder of a charity that helps establish COVID-19 field hospitals, says he struggles to sleep through the night.
“It’s changed lives for doctors,” Singh told AFP.
“The worst thing was that we could not save many lives due to lack of oxygen.”
Even after completing their punitive shifts, doctors said they were worried about infecting families at home.
Kumar said he would constantly think about how the virus was “anywhere, everywhere.”
“If doctors can’t save their (own) lives, how are they going to save the lives of others?” he said.