Yes, the title ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut‘ (Death of a Doctor) belonged to an award-winning Hindi movie made in 1990 by well-known filmmaker Tapan Sinha (1924- 2009). In the movie the protagonist, a medical doctor played brilliantly by Pankaj Kapoor, makes a rare discovery of a vaccine for leprosy after years of painstaking research, and instead of being recognized for that he is harassed and hounded by the authorities, and the doctor gets deprived of international honour also as he was transferred to a remote village. We cannot dismiss this story as a mere work of fiction, because the movie was based on the real-life story of Dr. Subhash Mukhopadhyay (1931-1981) who became only the second doctor in the world to use in-vitro fertilization in childbirth. Again, instead of honouring him the then West Bengal government and the Indian Government harassed him thanks to the familiar factors of professional jealousy, manipulative politics and bureaucratic negligence making the doctor face ostracization, reprimand and insults. He was also barred from international recognition. Dr. Subhash, frustrated and utterly dejected, committed suicide on 19th June 1981, and he wrote in his suicide note, ‘I can’t wait every day for a heart attack to kill me.’
Another doctor died recently in Assam. Although he was not in the league of the doctor-scientists as above he was a dedicated and efficient physician, always trusted and loved by his patients. He was working for public sector company and mid-way in his career he started discovering himself in the thick of politics of manipulation, professional or even personal jealousy, administrative negligence and gradual ostracization, and over the years it assumed the horrid proportions of harassment at workplace, constant hounding and denial of deserved promotions/responsibility/desired transfer. The torture took an inevitable toll on his health, and he suffered a sudden inexplicable health disorder in 2018 for which he had to be treated in the critical care unit of a Delhi hospital. He recovered from the illness eventually, but the inhuman official harassment only intensified making him depressed, isolated and afraid to even attend office. The trusted doctor, while on a medical checkup after his recovery, decided to make a last try for a transfer to his hometown so that he could at least resume his normal work, and was taken to the head office by a few colleagues. There, a top-level officer insulted him by reportedly saying that if the doctor wanted to die, he could damn well die as the authorities would take care of his family. The selective targeting happened till the day before the end. His life was cruelly snuffed out finally, equally inexplicably, when it was all over in just five minutes during his usual afternoon nap.
More of such unfortunate cases may have happened or have been happening across India, but statistics on that are missing. We only know that there have always been assaults on good doctors whenever a patient dies suddenly while under their medical care. In 2019 in Kolkata, West Bengal, a brutal public attack in a hospital almost killed a young doctor, and sometime back in Assam a senior doctor got killed in a similar attack. Therefore, unfortunately, although we hold doctors as givers of life or at times like God, this bonhomie continues as long as the patients get cured and return home. Repeated protests and demonstrations by the medical fraternity are yet to convince the governments in drafting a policy of protection for all of the workers of the healthcare sector. Harassment and hounding at workplaces are a far cry in terms of even taking notice.
When the COVID-19 pandemic had started to affect India seriously from the month of March 2020 all doctors and all healthcare workers were hailed as ‘Corona Warriors’ and had been requested to carry on with their life-saving duty with dedication. Now, over six months they have been doing their duty without any break or relief, except for the periods of quarantine when they themselves are infected which, of course, cannot qualify as rest. Active doctors of both government and private sectors have been saying that this continuous stress of non-stop duty is going to have serious repercussions in near future; but no one is hearing them. Instead, in many places across the country the dedicated fraternity has had to hold protests for various reasons including even the payment of pending monthly salaries.
Appalled by the apathy of various governments the Indian Medical Association (IMA) had recently published a statement pointing out the risks of working doctors and the very high fatality rates among them. The risks of getting infected with COVID-19 is naturally high, because they are treating positive patients or asymptomatic patients unawares all the time, and since the viral load in them is also naturally much higher the fatality rate turns out to be scary. The IMA said in the statement that around 2300 doctors got infected with COVID-19 till mid-September 2020 out of which 382 succumbed to the disease (increased to more than 500 deaths in October). This yields a death rate of around 16-17% in doctors while the national average rate is around 1.5% only now. The statistics also reveal a shocking aspect: an overwhelming majority of the dead doctors belongs to the age group of 60-61 which belies the national objective of protecting the elders. In fact, there had been guidelines regarding not directly deploying senior doctors in the wards, but allowing them to supervise from the master control rooms. However, the opposite practice is in force, obviously due to the limited number of doctors in relation to the population of the country.
As per the IMA statement even insurance facilities are not being extended to the dead doctors, with the central government saying this being a State subject it has no data for consideration, and the States are yet to take any action on this. The statement further said that if no government is prepared to recognize them as ‘COVID Warriors’ in the truest sense, then at least it should declare the dead doctors as ‘martyrs. This is very tragic indeed, and scary too, in view of the fact that the Coronavirus pandemic is set to continue for quite sometime to come and the medical fraternity is stressed beyond any measure or understanding.
We tend to be very vocal in severe criticism whenever incidents of commercial attitudes of private doctors and hospitals get reported. But we must consider the other side too, the good and trusted physicians working selflessly round the clock, particularly in the times of the pandemic. We the citizens always look upon the doctors to treat and save us every time we fall sick or get the virus in the present context, and in that same spirit, we must think and care about the dangers and stress faced by the most important and the integral part of our society, and take appropriate steps to help them out. If only citizens and the governments combine in protecting and respecting the medical fraternity, the title ‘COVID Warriors’ given to them would be justified and realized. Else, the movie title would continue to be the cruel reality.