A fragile young Kashmiri doctor rewarded for his outstanding performance in Medicine by the President of India cycled his way out of his house in Srinagar post-August 5, 2019 ‘requesting’ (mind you not protesting) the authorities to ease the communication ban enforced in Kashmir that had inflicted unmatched suffering on patients and made the work of doctors nearly impossible. It was a perfectly non-political, non-aggressive, democratic request and poor doctor landed up in lock-up for speaking for the rights of patients. The response of the authorities to a humane request from a ‘savior of humans’ left us gasping. No one spoke for the doctor, not even his co-professionals, as they preferred ‘silence’ to ‘arrest’. This incident gives a peek into the challenges faced by doctors serving in a conflict zone amidst fear, but doing their duty, nevertheless.
Over the last 30-years, doctors working in Kashmir have suffered in the line of duty; working in ideal conditions is a dream for them. Shutdowns, lockdowns, curfews, and other disturbances have not held them back from doing what is required of them. Corona epidemic threw a new challenge for them and thankfully they are bravely fighting it like the warriors on the frontline.
Corona pandemic brought out the best amongst doctors and paramedics. They were supposed to work when the rest of the world was hiding in the innermost quarters. They became the hope of severely sick; the eyes, ears and the voice of those on the deathbed. They held drowning hands when a mere handshake was forbidden, they blew life into parched mouths when a casual touch was a crime, they risked their lives, their families, and held on to an oath that would even surprise Hippocrates. The world acknowledged their sacrifices when their coffins followed the recovery of the patients they attended to.
However, the world is not homogeneous. A good number of people came out applauding doctors, singing for them, honoring them, lauding their sacrifices, many instances of excesses on them punctured that bubble of applause. In our part of the world in the middle of lockdown, a cardiologist was harassed and instead of facilitating his movement to the hospital where he had to attend patients he was diverted to a police station. Someone has to tell the ones who stopped him, and put him in a police station, that a hospital and police station are not synonymous. Someone has to make the police personnel understand the importance of attending to a patient in time. This was unfortunately not the only incident, a medical officer in Kashmir was stopped from going to a quarantine center to inspect the arrangement for COVID patients. His video, where he was stopped from attending to his duty went viral on social media.
While I can talk about the episodes of high-handedness with doctors that earned limelight, there were many instances where doctors preferred silence despite harassment. There were numerous episodes of inhuman treatment to doctors and paramedics amid corona epidemic. The death of a Chennai neurosurgeon who after contracting corona virus was refused a burial space by the same community that he served, sent a message of betrayal by the society towards doctors. Doctors were locked up, and thrown out of their rented accommodations. Hundreds of doctors and nurses died treating corona patients throughout the world. Many of them were inadequately protected wearing garbage bags instead of Hazmat suits. While the hospitals where they worked got the replacement, their families suffered alone. There has not been a policy anywhere in the world as to how the families of doctors who lose their lives in the line of duty get compensated. A wreath on their coffins or a gun salute won’t satisfy the needs of their families. Agreed, the families will never get their heroes back, but what will they get is the question? When the Head of Pulmonology at AIIMS New Delhi succumbed to Coronavirus, I wondered how would the authorities help his family?
While the Corona pandemic has brought the generosity, dedication and commitment of the doctors to the forefront, it has exposed the hollowness of the healthcare systems throughout the world. Doctors work in the shadow of empathy and will not refuse working even when inadequately protected. They don’t have strong organizations tt can fight for their rights, they are not vocal and thus their safety is easily compromised. The system has to be held accountable for the health of a doctor. Clapping or singing for doctors will boost their morale but will not bring back their lives. Let us not wrap a doctor in a shroud of martyrdom and hide the inadequacies of the healthcare system. They are not the chickens to be culled to satisfy the hunger of an underprepared system.
Doctors have reinforced their presence in an era of indifference. They went beyond ethics, beyond guidelines to soothe minds and heal hearts. All professions are noble, some are nobler. All lives are precious and some are more precious because they save many precious lives. Possibly doctors belong to this category. Society will not thrive unless it cares for its doctors. For now, let there be no atrocities on them, let you be kind to them, let them not be punished for caring, let them not be stopped from attending to their duties. Their role extends beyond regions, religions and borders. Let you reform your system to accommodate their needs. Let them receive the respect they deserve, the honor they desire. Let you not snub them, shut them when they speak for their patients or themselves. Let them be the health policymakers. Bureaucrats may have the power and authority but doctors have science, experience and ethics to back them. If you respect doctors, society will follow you. I would love to see the cars with signboards “doctor on board” so that police know that the vehicle should pass without hindrance. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. While vehicles of bureaucrats negotiate any security hurdle with ease, doctors are stopped inhumanly.
With an added burden of Coronavirus, the doctor community struggling in a conflict zone like Kashmir needs more compassion and more care from society. Doctors should not be living from hand to mouth, cursing themselves every day for opting for a profession in which there is no security.
Let it be the opportunity to uplift the morale of doctors. Let it change the mindset of society towards doctors. Let it address the deficiencies in the system that make doctors scapegoats. On Doctor’s day, this year and onwards, let us give doctors the love, the respect and the care they deserve. This is a small gift for the sacrifices they make.
And do not forget that their families make a bigger sacrifice.
Dr Rumana Makhdoomi,MD (Path), Fellowship Neuro-oncopathology [NIMHANS], Professor, Dept of Pathology. SKIMS, Srinagar, Kashmir.