Low wages, 24-hour shifts and a severe shortage of personnel and protective equipment have left many medics on the frontlines of India’s brutal pandemic wave near breaking point and fearing for their lives.
Coronavirus infections have killed at least 165,000 people in the vast South Asian country – home to some of the most densely populated cities in the world – since early April.
Although the latest wave of Covid-19 in India has recently abated, around 3,000 people still die every day and the chronically underfunded healthcare system remains under great strain.
“We are overworked, stressed and very scared,” Radha Jain, a doctor in the capital New Delhi, told AFP.
The Indian Medical Association said more than 1,200 doctors have died from Covid since the start of the pandemic, including more than 500 in the past two months.
Deependra Garg, a doctor working on the outskirts of Delhi, knows firsthand how serious the situation has become.
His wife Anubha, 48, herself a doctor, fell ill with Covid in April.
They started treatment at home, but as his condition worsened he – like so many other families – struggled to get a hospital bed.
He eventually found one nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) from their home. But Anubha – who was fully vaccinated – died within two weeks, leaving behind their 12-year-old daughter.
“We are on the front line 24/7. We are exposed to a high viral load but we have to keep working through thick and thin because we have chosen this profession,” Garg said.
“We do not have a choice.”
– Underfunded and overloaded –
The pandemic has exposed the structural weaknesses of the Indian health system, especially in poorly equipped public hospitals.
As the latest outbreak spread, reports emerged of hospitals with small numbers of patients lying on the floor and sharing beds in crowded wards, while family members protected with only cotton masks took care of loved ones.
The government spends less than 2% of GDP on health care, one of the lowest rates in the world.
India had just 0.8 doctors per 1,000 people in 2017, roughly the same level as Iraq, according to the World Bank. The other two countries most affected by the coronavirus, Brazil and the United States, had 2.2 and 2.6 respectively.
A pre-pandemic report from the US-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy estimated that India needed 600,000 more doctors and two million more nurses to meet its health needs. health care.
Dr Shekhar Kumar, who works with a private hospital in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said junior staff and final year medical students sometimes had to work around the clock.
“Compared to last year, this time, patients require longer hospital stays, which increases the burden on staff,” Kumar said.
He added that they were even more stressed when their colleagues fell ill with the virus.
– ‘We couldn’t save a lot of lives’ –
Doctors said they were traumatized by being forced to choose which patients to save first as they struggled with an insufficient supply of medicine and oxygen.
Ravikant Singh, the founder of a charity group helping set up Covid field hospitals, said he struggled to sleep on some nights.
“It is a situation that has changed the lives of doctors,” Singh told AFP.
“The worst part is … we couldn’t save a lot of lives because of the lack of oxygen.”
Even after completing their punitive shifts, doctors said they feared infecting their families at home.
Kumar said he would constantly think about how the virus “was hiding anywhere and everywhere.”
“If doctors can’t save their (own) lives, how will they save the lives of others? ” he said.
abh / grk / gle