Protect India’s brave health workers
The ordinance is a good step. But supplement it with a set of strong law enforcement measuresUpdated: Apr 23, 2020, 17:25 IST
Two medical doctors, Zakiya Syed and Trupti Katdare, who were pelted with stones by a mob in a dense settlement in Indore, returned to the spot a day later along with their team of health workers to screen people for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). “I am injured, but not scared at all. This won’t deter me from doing my duty,” said the intrepid coronavirus warrior, Dr Syed.
Responding with alacrity to the strike call by the Indian Medical Association (IMA) against such attacks on health workers, the Union government, on Wednesday, approved an ordinance to amend, and strengthen, the Indian Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, making offence against doctors and nurses cognisable, non-bailable and carrying imprisonment terms from six months to seven years. Earlier, distressed with a series of such attacks in hospitals and testing zones, the IMA called for a two-day strike by the doctors on April 22 and 23. It was only after the assurance of the Union home minister that the strike was called off.
Corona warriors, at the vanguard of our battle against the pandemic, have a stupendous job at hand. In hospitals, they are treating the patients, while outside, they are screening possible Covid-19 cases — putting their lives on the line. A number of them have already contracted the coronavirus. As per available reports, 1,700 health workers in China were infected with the coronavirus. Across the world, many doctors and nurses have died combating the disease.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly reserved the highest praise for India’s doctors, nurses and other health care workers by calling them frontline soldiers. And yet, distressing reports of doctors and health workers being attacked on duty kept pouring in. Even the international media took note and mentioned that such attacks have been witnessed from Australia to the Philippines, but none with the severity as seen in India.
Will a tough law act as a deterrent? Yes, if an enabling environment is created, through supplementary measures for its implementation. Two issues — the paucity of policemen, and more important, the speed of response — are critical. Hence some further measures are imperative.
First, hospitals need to be secured firmly. Instead of deploying scarce policemen in hospitals, the government should appoint special police officers (SPOs) for each hospital. The provision for appointing SPOs is given in Section 17 of the Police Act, which can be invoked at a time of emergency to make up for the shortage of police personnel. Each hospital, however, has several private security guards, who can be appointed as SPOs. Once declared SPOs, they have the powers of the police and can work in the same fashion. In case of attacks on doctors and nurses, they can immediately take action. One liaison officer from the local police station can be designated for each hospital for coordination. This will raise the morale and confidence of the doctors, and bring order to the proceedings in the hospitals. The SPOs will have to be given personal protective equipment (PPE) and arm bands for acting without fear in times of need. An honorarium can be fixed for them for the time they perform duties as SPOs.
In rural areas, the village kotwals should be made SPOs. Odisha’s chief minister has already taken a historic decision of giving powers of a collector to sarpanches to enforce the quarantine measures. Empowering panchayats and local bodies will help fight the epidemic better and other states should follow Odisha’s model.
Second, doctors have demanded security at home and while commuting to work and back. A few overzealous resident welfare association (RWA) office-bearers have displayed hostility towards the resident doctors treating Covid-19 patients, while some have been attacked outside hospitals. Arrangements must be made for such health workers who require temporary accommodation and transport. Some hotels have already volunteered to host them at their venues. More guest houses and public venues need to be requisitioned to accommodate all those who desire these facilities. In addition, a team of police, municipal and revenue officials should caution and rein in these RWA officials against any moves to oust the doctors from society premises and, if necessary, take stern action. Such doctors should also be given helplines to contact in case of need.
Third, the demand of the doctors for high-risk allowance during this unprecedented period should be accepted. The Delhi government has announced Rs 1 crore compensation for the family of a fallen corona warrior, which includes not only doctors but policemen and others who are battling the pandemic. Such a move should be emulated by other states too.
Fourth, a clear message needs to go from the state governments against those attacking the lifesavers. To tackle the problem of attacks in clusters, where health teams go for check-ups, the National Security Act can also be used. The Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments have used it in case of attacks on doctors and policemen in Indore and Moradabad respectively. Figures of arrests under the above Acts are compiled at the state and central level daily. These statistics need to be projected in the vernacular media daily to show the government’s intent and deter trouble-makers.
Fifth, states have to brace for a future scenario when the lockdown is eased in a phased manner and hotspots have to be contained and monitored. Extensive screening will have to be resorted to. Clusters to be covered should be approached by teams of municipal, police and revenue officials to dispel any rumour about the methodology of testing or the state of quarantine centres. Each police station has a list of opinion leaders of the areas and they should be used for such exercises.
And finally, the authorities will need to closely monitor social media, since it is often the site of hate speeches and rumours. Some of their accounts will require forcible closure and action against some to give the right message to the social media users.