Hailed as “Corona Warriors” but exploited to the bone

The country’s doctors and nurses have been bearing the brunt of the Corona pandemic since the last nearly 15 months. They have worked for long hours at a stretch, tirelessly and without rest. Thousands of them across the country have been infected by the virus and several hundreds have lost their lives in service. They have faced stigma from their neighbours and many were evicted from their homes during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. In the last two months, they have been among the hundreds who have been lying in the corridors of the biggest hospitals waiting their turn for ICU beds and oxygen cylinders.

At the height of the pandemic last year, the Prime Minister hailed them as ‘Corona Warriors’ and made a big show of gratitude for them on behalf of the country. However, the facts on the ground reflect the sheer hypocrisy of the government. The conditions of life and work of our health workers do not reflect any respect for the critical role they play in society, and more so in the context of a crisis such as at present.

Salaries of doctors, nurses and support staff have been in arrears for months in several states, including in some of the capital’s largest public hospitals; vacancies in the posts of doctors and nurses have remained unfilled; nurses have been hired on contract for 2-3 months each time instead of on regular employment; overdue promotions of resident doctors have been withheld while arbitrarily announcing cancellation and indefinite postponement of medical exams. Further, health workers from doctors to cleaning staff have had to face lack of protection gear, denial of insurance and compensation to their families on loss of life.

Even as recently as March 2020, Resident Doctors of the Hindu Rao Hospital in Delhi had to threaten to go on a day-long casual leave and indefinite strike over pending salaries. Third year Resident Doctors across the country posted on Covid duty have demanded that they be promoted as Senior Residents. Covid wards across the country have been serviced by these post-graduate doctors for over a year now. They are demanding that their services be recognised, they be promoted and their pay scales raised accordingly.

Final year MBBS students, resident doctors and nursing students who are being pressed into service for COVID care in hospitals are only being paid a stipend and not minimum wages. For e.g. the Himachal Pradesh government announced that fourth and fifth year MBBS students, contractual doctors and junior and residents will be given an incentive of Rs 3,000 per month. Besides this, nursing students, contractual laboratory staff and General Nursing & Midwifery (GNM) third-year students will be given Rs 1,500 per month for working at COVID care facilities at medical colleges and hospitals. This amounts to Rs 100 per day for medical students and Rs 50 per day for nursing students for full-day duties at a COVID ward!

Government hospitals in several states across the country continue to face an acute shortage of nursing staff, including specialised nurses who would be needed to administer ventilators and other critical care. For example, Maharashtra government’s Directorate of Health Services had announced in February 2019 that it was going to conduct recruitment exams to fill more than 1,500 vacancies for staff nurses and specialist nurses in public hospitals across the state. However, the exams were postponed for 2 years. They were held only in February 2021 and the results announced in March 2021. So, by the time these nurses were hired, the state was in the grip of the second wave and faced by an acute shortage of nurses. Even graduate nurses who had applied for staff nurse positions were recruited to various hospitals as late as in May 2021, months after their applications were received. Even now thousands of nurses are being hired on monthly contracts, while qualified nurses are looking for jobs.

Health workers have been struggling against their exploitative conditions of work for many years. They have organised themselves to demand better working and living conditions. However, successive governments have continued to deny them these rights and even basic conditions that are necessary for them to carry out their critical duties. This has directly contributed to the exacerbation of the crisis that patients and their families are facing. Those who are ruling the country are unwilling to fulfil their responsibility both to those who seek health services and to those who are providing these services.

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