Struggle of healthcare workers amid a ‘violent’ pandemic

The flames of the second wave of coronavirus have completely engulfed the nation. Due to the unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitals are running out of beds and medical oxygen, which has led to a rise in the number of deaths. The situation has led to multiple cases of violence against healthcare professionals in several states.

Eight hospital staff including doctors and nurses were attacked by relatives of patients at Apollo Hospital in New Delhi last month after a patient who had not got a hospital bed in the ICU died. On May 1, the staff of a hospital in Bareilly was attacked after a patient was not admitted due to lack of oxygen. A similar incident happened in Goa where relatives of a patient abused doctors after the patient’s death at the SGDH on April 18 and another incident in which a patient’s relatives abused the doctors, nurses and broke a ventilator at the GMC on Wednesday.

Last year, the Centre passed legislation that provides for up to seven years in jail for those attacking healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus or during any situation akin to the current pandemic. Under the legislation, the commission or abetment of such violence is punishable with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years and with a fine of ₹ 50,000 to ₹ 2,00,000. In case of causing grievous hurt, the imprisonment shall be for a term of six months to seven years and with a fine of ₹ 1-5 lakh. 

However, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) had said that the enforcement of the act is not up to the mark as it is not tagged to the IPC and CrPC. It becomes very difficult for victims to file a complaint and the police also find it difficult to register the complaint due to the lack of clarity of the section under which the complaint has to be registered. As a result, healthcare professionals continue to suffer. 

Workplace violence has been defined by the World Health Organization as incidents where staff are abused, threatened, or assaulted in circumstances related to their work, including commuting to and from work, involving an explicit or implicit challenge to their safety, well-being or health. It has been estimated that healthcare workers are four times likely to be injured and require time away from work due to workplace violence than all other workers combined. 

In India, up to 75% of the doctors have been victims of assault at work, 50% of the incidents have taken place in the intensive care units (ICUs), and in 70% of the cases, the relatives of the patient have been actively involved.

There is a need to implement uniform stringent laws safeguarding the rights of doctors all over the country. Violence against healthcare workers should be included in the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Criminal Procedure Code as a cognizable offence with strict punishment. The government should also consider improving the conditions of the hospitals it runs and fill the vacant positions to account for the shortage of staff. Equipping the primary and secondary centres with adequate drugs, instruments, and staff can result in many conditions getting cured at this level itself, thereby leaving the doctors in the tertiary care centres to give more time and attention to cases that require skilled intervention from them. National policies for education, health awareness, immunization, sanitation, clean drinking water and unadulterated food will go a long way in reducing the burden on the healthcare system.

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