As the Coronavirus pandemic broke out in India, it mainly affected the major cities at first, growing its roots deep down into the rural regions of the country. Ravaging the country’s poorly-equipped rural areas, the pandemic has brought death and misery as the rural areas fight through an acute shortage of oxygen, life-saving drugs, beds, and healthcare workers. A report by The Indian Express noted that since April 2021, the healthcare workforce of 3.8 million people have been working constantly to treat patients. Since last year, Uttar Pradesh has seen more than 20,600 deaths whereas Maharashtra has become the state reporting highest number of Covid-19 death toll as 99,000 people succumbed to the viral infection in one year.
The numbers, in themselves, are an indicator of how grave the situation is. Covid-19 has become a monster going on rampaging from one patient to another with no end seen in the near future. While a decline in the number of new cases (as reported by the government) can surely be seen, the fear of a third wave lingers. Over the last one year, Karnataka has reported more than 29,500 deaths followed by West Bengal with over 15,800 deaths and Bihar at over 5,200 deaths. A doctor at the Vardhman Institute of Medical Sciences in Bihar’s Nalanda district underlined that people are still not in favor of getting tested. And on top of it, they self-medicate themselves and doubt the doctors at the same time.
Similarly in Bengal, a tsunami of cases were seen after May 2, as the state concluded its Assembly elections. Citing a doctor, the report highlighted that doctors were expecting more patients post-election rallies, as thousands of people were part of it without their masks on. This indeed turned out to be true with overwhelming cases being rushed to hospitals. Even the biggest government hospitals witnessed a large number of deaths, making the medical staff which has continuously been working helpless.
At the same time, in many parts of India, there was a “shortage of everything.” Now this includes staff as well. Apart from the fact that medical workers were already lower than the number needed to handle a pandemic as big as it is in India, around 50 per cent of the doctors and nursing staff came under the impact of Covid-19 infection. Being a doctor, nurse, ward boy, or a technician, at the end, there was no difference as a shortage of staff required taking up multiple roles at the same time. Over the last three months, the number of infected patients being admitted to hospitals never really decreased. With each discharge, more patients were seen coming to hospitals for treatment.
Meanwhile, in late April and early May, with the increased transmission and severity in cases, many hospitals – it did not matter how big or small they were – witnessed shortage of medical oxygen as well as life-saving drugs. In Karnataka, 23 patients in a COVID-19 facility in Chamarajanagar district allegedly died due to a shortage of medical oxygen. Similar cases of shortage surfaced in other parts of the country. One can only imagine if conditions became worse in the national capital (where many government and private hospitals are managed efficiently), what could have been the case for rural areas where the healthcare infrastructure is not that strong.
The report said healthcare workers in rural areas have admitted that there were infrastructure challenges in April-May; however, many are refusing to go on record as they fear reprisal. To be sure, the second wave has served as a reality check for India’s rural healthcare system and pointed out the need for more investments. In Madhya Pradesh, around 3,000 junior doctors went on strike where they demanded a hike in their stipend as well free treatment for them and their families if they are infected with Covid-19.
Yogesh CB working at a Covid-19 facility in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district said that while the healthcare staff has been busy addressing the grave concerns and providing treatment to Covid-19 patients, they had to deal with the relatives of patients who often got aggressive. Since relatives were not allowed in the wards, they sought hourly updates. With centres already being short-staffed, it became impossible for them to update the patients’ families and do their job at the same time. In cases where patients die, they won’t allow doctors to pack the bodies in bags as per COVID-19 protocols, making tasks even more difficult.
Cases have surfaced where doctors were even beaten up by relatives in cases where a Covid-19 patient succumbed to the infection. Last week, a doctor on COVID-19 duty in Assam was brutally kicked and thrashed by relatives of a patient who had died at the health facility. All of this has been recorded in a video and shared on social media. As a result, 24 people allegedly involved in the incident have been arrested by the police.
Working long hours in PPE kits and without any leaves, the doctors serving people in rural areas have surely borne the brunt of the second Covid-19 wave. All they can do is keep on going and find a few moments of reprise in order to stay on course. Nonetheless, not being able to break the cycle of stress and depression for doctors at hospitals is making the matter even more severe.