At last, legal protection for healthcare workers comes true

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Symbolic gestures such as clapping hands and lighting candles in recognition of healthcare workers’ selfless service during these trying times do not bolster their morale as much as understanding and support from the society does.

Since the first case of novel coronavirus infection in the country was reported in end-January, there have been many instances of healthcare workers who have been subjected to abuse and violence in the line of duty.

Most of the attacks have been on healthcare personnel who have been sent to localities to collect samples from people who are suspected to have been infected or have come in contact with those who have tested positive for the virus. There have also been a few instances when doctors returning home from duty have been prevented from entering their homes and some cases even asked to vacate their premises.

While such acts have been widely condemned, nothing much changed on the ground to protect healthcare workers and prevent such incidents from recurring in other parts of the country. The dastardly act of a few people in Chennai who not only injured the healthcare workers but also chased them away and prevented a decent burial of a neurosurgeon who died of COVID-19 complications on April 19 shook the nation’s conscience.

If the Indian Medical Association’s plea on many occasions in the past that doctors and other healthcare workers be protected against violence went largely unheeded, the demand for protection after the Chennai incident finally bore fruits.

Though belated, the union cabinet’s decision to promulgate an ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to make acts of violence against medical personnel a cognizable and non-bailable offence and also provide compensation in case of injury or damage or loss to property is indeed commendable.

Fear and ignorance at times drive violence

Very often, the abuse and violence against healthcare workers after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country has been due to fear and ignorance. The communal colour given to COVID-19 epidemic after the large religious congregation was held in mid-March by Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin, Delhi had initially led many in the community to avoid coming forward to get tested.

In many cases, the fear of stigma and quarantine led to attacks on healthcare workers who had gone to collect samples from people who were part of this congregation. In other instances, the wrong messaging that getting infected by the virus meant certain death, in order to achieve maximum compliance to shutdown, unwittingly led to fear psychosis.

Problems with negative messaging

Negative messaging, especially of the kind that induces fear and stigma, have always been counterproductive, as seen in the early days of HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the country. Awareness building exercise became easier and more effective when negative messaging and stereotyping about HIV/AIDS was shunned. The same holds true for COVID-19 too.

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers who are forced to work long hours treating patients infected with the highly infectious virus, and even when protective gear in the form of gloves, face mask and personal protective equipment have been scarce, need more empathy, compassion, and unmitigated support and cooperation from the society.

Symbolic gestures such as clapping hands and lighting candles in recognition of their selfless service during these trying times do not bolster their morale as much as understanding and support from the society does.

Published in The Hindu on April 24, 2020