Exhausted by long hours of work, poorly paid, traumatized Indian doctors on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus constantly fear for their lives and the lives of their families.
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“We are overworked, stressed and very scared,” Radha Jain, a physician based in New Delhi, India’s capital, told AFP.
Since early April, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of at least 165,000 people in India, a country of 1.3 billion and home to some of the world’s most populous cities.
Doctors are paying a heavy price in this unprecedented health crisis. More than 1,200 of them have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, including more than 500 in the past two months, according to the Indian Medical Association.
While the epidemic appears to be dying down, around 3,000 people still die from COVID-19 every day, and the healthcare system remains under great pressure.
Working in the suburbs of Delhi, Dr. Dependra Garg knows how dire the situation has become. His 48-year-old wife Anubha, a doctor and duly vaccinated, contracted COVID-19 in April. Her treatment began at their home, but her condition worsened, he had to fight, like so many others, to get her, like most others, admitted to the hospital, saturated.
” No choice ”
In the end, his wife was admitted to a hospital about 200 kilometers from their home, but she died two weeks later, leaving her 12-year-old daughter behind.
“We are at the forefront 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are exposed to high viral loads, but we have to keep working despite all the difficulties, because we have chosen this profession, “explains Dr. Garg,” we have no choice. “
The pandemic has highlighted the structural weaknesses of the Indian health care system, especially in poorly equipped and underfunded public hospitals. The Indian government spends less than 2% of GDP on healthcare, one of the lowest in the world.
As the second wave of the epidemic spread, the number of hospital reports increased, and they indicated a shortage of staff, patients lying on the floor or several people in beds, families at their bedside in simple cotton masks.
India, the third largest economic power in Asia and the sixth in the world, had just 0.8 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants in 2017, which is equivalent to the situation in Iraq, according to the World Bank. Brazil and the United States, the other two countries hardest hit by the virus, were 2.2 and 2.6, respectively.
The virus “lurks everywhere”
India’s health sector was short of at least 600,000 doctors and two million nurses, according to a pre-pandemic report by the US Center for Dynamics, Economics and Policy.
It required junior staff and undergraduate medical students who sometimes worked around the clock, says Dr. Shekhar Kumar, at a private hospital in northern Uttar Pradesh.
Compared to last year’s wave, “this time, patients need to be hospitalized longer, which increases the burden on the medical staff,” stresses Dr. Kumar. He adds that it is a disaster when one of them, in turn, is infected.
Many doctors also say they are traumatized by having to choose who to save first, due to a lack of drugs and oxygen.
“This situation has changed the lives of doctors,” Ravikant Singh, founder of a charity that helps build field hospitals, told AFP. “The worst thing is that (…) we were unable to save many lives due to lack of oxygen.”
Having completed their painful daily task, doctors are also concerned about the risk of contamination of their families. Dr. Kumar says he is obsessed with the idea that the virus “lurks everywhere and everywhere.”
“If doctors cannot save their (own) life, how can they save the lives of others? “