A Greek physician, Hippocrates once coined a phrase “Extreme times call for
extreme measures.” This phrase tends to be so apt when perceived in situations
such as this current one of Covid-19 pandemic. Not just India but the entire
world is undergoing the extremities of this malady. And during such testing
times, it is the doctors, nurses, paramedics and medical staff who have assumed
the position of frontline warriors and are controlling the situation in an
exceptionally selfless manner. But what essentially needs to be understood here
is that these people also have a right to health.
In India, right to health is not directly enshrined in the Constitution but has
been embodied under Article 21 of the Constitution. Article 21 guarantees
protection of life and personal liberty to every citizen of this country. The
Supreme Court has held that the right to live with human dignity as encompassed
in Article 21 is derived from the directive principles of state policy and
therefore includes protection of health within its ambit (1). Further, it has
also been held that the right to health is an integral part of the right to life
and the government has a constitutional obligation to provide health facilities
to all the citizens and is thus duty bound (2).
These principles apply not just to the common citizens but also to the frontline
warriors especially because in the times of pandemic they are the ones subjected
to the highest amount of risk and it is of paramount importance that they remain
in pink of health. It is important for the saviours to be healthy in order for
them to save the world. But on the contrary, there are no sufficient measures
taken for their safety and protection. This in turn undermines the treatment of
myriad patients which lies in the hands of these doctors and medical staff.
Problems faced by the frontline warriors:
i. Dearth of protective gear
Medical staff across so many parts of India has been lamenting about the
inadequate supply of protective gears such as the PPE kits, N95 masks, hand
sanitizers, gloves and so on. The availability of these things is the basic
pre-requisite that needs to be fulfilled in all the hospitals, be it private or
public for the doctors and medical staff to efficaciously treat their patients
with utmost care and caution. Three months ago, death of nearly 3000 patients in
Wuhan, China was an alarming call for our health ministry to start garnering as
many PPE kits, N95 masks and gloves as would suffice in fighting the
The government has advised all the doctors to wear a
triple layer mask while dealing with the covid-19 patients but as a matter of
fact they are itself not being provided to the doctors because of the scarcity.
As a result, so many doctors have been skipping duty because of the apprehension
of succumbing to the contagious coronavirus and subsequently jeopardizing their
In a glaring instance of apathy towards safety needs of frontline warriors
against Covid-19, approximately a 100 resident doctors and paramedic staff at
SVP hospital in Ellisbridge area of Ahmedabad went on a flash strike complaining
they were not provided with N95 masks and PPE equipment – the most fundamental
safety gear required by the medicos (3).
Hospital janitors also form a crucial part of the frontline warriors who play a
pivotal role in the fight against coronavirus.
A special attention of the
government for their protection is necessitated by the present situation. Dr Subarna Sarkar, resident doctor working in COVID ward at Sassoon General
Hospital in Pune is of the view that in the fight for protective gears, the
hospital janitors are often least prioritised although they are the ones who
clean the floor, dispose of the trash, handle the bodies of those who have died
due to Covid-19 and are vital to keep a hospital running (4).
Maharashtra accounted for close to 83% of all doctors quarantined, followed by
11% in Delhi and 6% in Karnataka (5). Many hospitals in Maharashtra, Delhi,
Karnataka, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have been partially or completely shut
down due to the reason of their staff being quarantined after their exposure to
Covid-19 patients. It was found that due to shortage of personal protective
equipment (PPE) at the hospitals, the doctors and medical staff have become
vulnerable to the coronavirus patients they are treating (6).
ii. Abuse faced by the frontline warriors
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the cases of abuse faced by the doctors
have escalated to a large extent. On so many occasions the family members or the
attendants of the coronavirus patient admitted in the hospital have rolled up
their sleeves to pick a fight with the doctors. A lot of verbal abuses have been
hurled on them which have eventually fuelled up into physical assault.
A plethora of incidents of abuse on the doctors and medical staff have been
reported across so many cities of India. The list of deplorable incidents
include stone pelting on ambulance and medical staff in Moradabad district of
Uttar Pradesh, assault and manhandling of a woman doctor by a patient inside the
surgical ward of Lok Nayak Hospital in Delhi, attack on two doctors by the
family of a patient who died due to coronavirus in Gandhi Medical Hospital in
Hyderabad, healthcare workers and civic officials beaten up by angry locals in a
neighbourhood located in Indore in Madhya Pradesh, a doctor allegedly slapped
and insulted by SDM and police officer in Government Medical College Bharatpur
under RBM Hospital in Rajasthan and so on and so forth (7).
Apart from this, dreaded by the fact that they have been dealing with the
coronavirus patients, many of our frontline warriors have faced ostracisation
from their very own communities and have been evicted from their homes by the
merciless landlords or hostile society members. Cremations and burials of many
of them or their relatives have been a hard nut to crack for their families.
The aforementioned issues have proven to be unforeseen occupational hazards for
our frontline warriors. There is dire need to resolve these issues and provide
remedy to all those who have suffered and are still suffering while relentlessly
rendering their service to the nation. The area of health including protection
of doctors is a subject falling under the Sate list implying that only sates can
enact laws related to it.
In regards to this fact, 19 states have passed what is
called the Protection Of Medicare Service Persons And Medicare Service
Institutions (Prevention Of Violence And Damage To Property) Act, also known as
the Medical Protection Act (MPA). But it has not proved to be very efficient in
spite of having stringent provisions as many of the state law enforcing agencies
are still oblivious about such Act and moreover there is no mention of it in the
Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Due to the rise in number of attacks on the health workers, the Union Government
has promulgated Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020. The salient
features of the Ordinance include: (8)
- Attacks on doctors, paramedic staff and ASHA workers have been made non-bailable
and cognizable offences.
- These attacks are punishable with imprisonment from 6 months up to 7
years and fine of one lakh up to Rs 5 lakhs.
- The police investigation will be completed within a month and the case
will be fast-tracked with the final judgment to come within a year.
- Those found to be damaging the private clinic or a vehicle belonging to
a doctor will be asked to pay compensation amounting to twice the market
value of the damaged property or assets.
This amendment has come as a big sigh of relief for the healthcare workers
though it may have some limitations such as prevention of stringency of
punishment for offences against healthcare service personnel as compared to
punishment for offences against public servants. Had the healthcare service
personnel been included under the definition of Public Servant in Section 21 of
the IPC then this problem could have been eschewed. But taking a majority view,
it has immensely helped in assuaging the anguish of the frontline warriors. This
ordinance will act as a deterrence against any troubles caused to them.
Meanwhile India has emerged to be the world’s second largest producer of PPE
body coveralls as reported by the government recently. As we rejoice this news
on one hand, the striking thought that permeates our mind on the other hand is
about the quality control measures taken by the manufacturers while producing
them and by the authorities while testing and examining them. While the moto of
” has been taken up seriously and expeditiously, we
can hope that the best quality will also be ensured keeping in mind the plight
of our frontline warriors.
Preservation of human life and right to live with dignity are of paramount
importance. It is about time that the Centre realizes the gravity of the
problems faced by our frontline warriors and passes a central enactment for
their protection ensuring the reinforcement of the medical fraternity.
- Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (AIR 1984 SC 802).
- State of Punjab v. Mohinder Singh Chawla (1997) 2 SCC 83.
- Ahmedabad: Doctors at SVP strike work over N95 masks, available
- Need Safety More: COVID-19 Warriors on Military Show of Support,
available at https://www.thequint.com/news/india/covid-coronavirus-doctors-want-protection-not-one-day-appreciation-army-event
- Data | How many doctors and nurses have tested positive for coronavirus
in India? available at https://www.thehindu.com/data/how-many-doctors-and-nurses-have-tested-positive-for-coronavirus-in-india/article31410464.ece
- Covid-19: Around 50 doctors, medical staff test positive in India,
available at https://www.livemint.com/news/india/covid-19-around-50-doctors-medical-staff-test-positive-in-india-11585912669844.html
- Abused, Attacked, Beaten: Frontline Workers Are Risking Their Lives
Everyday In India, available at https://thelogicalindian.com/news/covid-19-healthcare-workers-attacked-20665
- Govt Clears Ordinance On Attack On Doctors, Amends Epidemic Act To Bring
7 Years Jail For Assaulting Medicos, available at https://medicaldialogues.in/news/health/government-policies/govt-clears-ordinance-on-attack-on-doctors-amends-epidemic-act-to-bring-7-years-jail-for-assaulting-medicos-65086