In the months since India has tried to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, the only thing that has remained consistent has been the incomparable, constant sacrifice of our frontline workers.
Doctors, sanitation workers, nurses, administrative staff, lab technicians, chemists, and many more professionals form our frontline workers. These are the Corona warriors, fighting to save the lives of people, even at great personal cost to their own lives.
Apart from heightened exposure to the virus, fighting the pandemic from the frontlines has left doctors and nurses physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. And yet, they continue on.
Dr. Zahid from critical care at AIIMS, couldn't open his #ramdaanfast as he was called to shift a #Covid_19 +ve intubated patient to the ICU from an ambulance.— Runjhun Sharma (@Runjhunsharmas) May 8, 2020
Dr. Zahid faced difficulty in ventilating the patient & suspected accidental extubation. So he decided to re-intubate pic.twitter.com/xn8QmG1EJF
The difficulty of wearing PPE for long hours, especially during India's hot summer months, is not something that the general public is aware of.
Dr. Suresh, Head of Special Task Force (STF) Covid-19, LNJP and Maulana Azad Medical College, shared with Business Standard the difficulties of wearing PPE:
It is not possible to wear PPE kit for more than seven hours. One cannot even use the toilet with this kit, but wearing it is a must for our safety.
According to several reports, PPEs can not be taken off during the shift because there is a shortage of both masks and kits, they are expensive, and taking them off increases the risk of contracting the infection. In fact, there have also been reports of doctors being asked to reuse face masks.
In an interview with Hindustan Times, a 38-year-old nurse (name withheld) working with Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital also shared her experience.
We cannot remove our PPEs once we wear it, because there are not enough suits to change into. This means that we cannot even drink water during duty. It is very hard. There have been days when I have spent my entire after-duty time drinking water because I am so dehydrated.
Long hours without food end with doctors drenched in sweat, because that is what wearing PPE entails.
Across states and hospitals, doctors have had similar, physically taxing experiences. A junior doctor shared with The Hindu that with no flow of air in 'protective gear', doctors often feel like they are 'about to faint' at the end of the shift.
In a report by the New Indian Express, a doctor, on condition of anonymity, explained their condition after long, grueling shifts:
We have been advised to take extra care and caution when treating patients. We cannot drink water, nor eat for 12 hours once we wear the PPE. It is a very strict procedure to follow as there are high risks of contamination and we have to be careful about it. We know it's our duty but honestly its too draining also. If there were more personnel then we could work in shifts of six hours maybe. 12 hours is too much. Many of us have dark circles under our eyes and we are worn out by the time we finish our one week shift.
From wearing diapers because bathroom breaks are not possible to working without centralized AC to prevent the spread of the virus, there is a lot that doctors have to go through, while wearing PPE.
The PPE is abominably hot. Even during a normal 30-40 min operation, with high wattage lights, overall, aprons, masks and caps and multiple folks assisting even with a/c on...my parents are drenched in sweat. I can’t imagine the condition of corona warriors 🙏🏻 https://t.co/TaI2hUGWNV— Curiosweety (@curiosweetie) May 23, 2020
It is becoming so difficult to perform duty in PPE while fasting, today temperature was almost 41°c, you sweat a lot and AC system is deliberately turned off because of risk of tranmission of infection. Bus dua hi hai ke kisi trha ye waba jald az jald khatam ho jaye.— Waleed Nasir (@waleednasir00) May 1, 2020
Dr Eranga Narangoda (right) and Dr Damayanthi Iddampitiya (left), drenched in sweat from wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) suits, at the end of a long day at work at the IDH. #COVID19 #lka— Roar LK (@Roarlk) March 17, 2020
Photo credits Dr Hasitha Attanayake|Special thanks Dr Ashwini de Abrew. pic.twitter.com/5IINZs0RnW
For female frontline workers, long hours in PPE also mean no break to change pads or tampons during menstruation. Because PPE kits were not designed keeping in mind female bodily functions.
Plus menstrual cramps. Uggh.— Abby S. ♕ (@aielsarmiento) May 18, 2020
As part of the Periodpath campaign, by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC, journalist Rituparna Chatterjee interviewed Dr. Archana, who is a pulmonologist with the Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS) in Bengaluru.
The PPEs are costly — around Rs 2000 each. It’s very difficult during the periods. It’s not only the flow, there’s a lot of discomfort also. Some of the women suffer from stomach pains and back pains. Because you cannot use washrooms while on Covid duty wearing PPEs, you cannot change your pad.
Apart from the physical struggles, working in the Covid ward has also taken an emotional toll on doctors, who are either not able to meet their families for weeks, or have to adopt strict measures when interacting with family members, especially kids.
Salute to this CoronaWarrior 🙏 Dr Sachin Nayak from Bhopal, who has turned his car into his home to quarantine himself from his family as he fights the virus every day!#IndiaFightsCoronavirus pic.twitter.com/5irlL2g6Hu— अद्वैता काला #StayHome 😷 (@AdvaitaKala) April 7, 2020
In an interview with ScoopWhoop, Dr. Lavanya Sharma talked about what it was like to be on Covid-19 duty:
My biggest dilemma right now is when should I go home and when should I not. It’s been more than a month since I hugged my 5-month old son. Because he’s so small he’s just started to recognise me and now, because I can’t be around people without a mask, he just can’t recognise me.
Journalist Faye D'Souza's exclusive report on frontline workers in KEM hospital revealed the emotional cost that doctors and nurses bear, by being away from families, acting as emotional pillars for isolated patients.
For these frontline workers, a patient is not a nameless statistic, but people whose lives they care for. Unfortunately, not every patient survives.
Veteran reporter Barkha Dutt also shared a report on how working for long hours in PPE kits led to rashes. In many cases, the doctors could not feed their own children, because of the smell from their bodies.
But unfortunately, their hours of struggles, emotional trauma, physical and mental stress, is being rewarded by unfair paranoia and harassment.
Dr. Lavanya had also talked about the change in the behavior of his neighbors:
The people in my neighbourhood whom I used to talk to on an almost everyday basis have stopped talking to me. Whenever I’m parking my car, I see the aunty, who is my neighbour, instantly gets up from her chair on the balcony and goes inside latching her door and windows. People feel that it’s going to be me who will spread the virus in my society and there’s nothing much that I can do about it.
Stories of doctors being ostracized by neighbors have continuously come across social media and news channels.
So many incidents are coming to light of sincere govt doctors who are now being threatened to enter their own homes! Please look seriously into this matter@narendramodi sir.— Dr.Devashish (@DevPalkar) March 23, 2020
A govt doctor. pic.twitter.com/MmLHZejsjf
Recently, basis the revised guidelines, doctors are being denied adequate quarantine time - despite being exposed to patients who could be Covid-19 positive. In response, doctors also staged a black ribbon protest.
Putting forward our Justified Demand for Adequate Quarantine & Testing of Doctors & other HCWs after #COVID19 duty #QuarantineforHCWs @drharshvardhan @MoHFW_INDIA @DrHVoffice @ANI @the_hindu @htTweets @timesofindia @IndianExpress @ians_india @TheQuint @PTI_News @ThePrintIndia pic.twitter.com/47bmm0VSe8— FORDA INDIA (@FordaIndia) May 20, 2020
The 'black ribbon protest' has been organised by the Federation of Resident Doctors Association (@FordaIndia) to express the medical professionals' disappointment over the revised guidelines for health workers posted in #Covid areas, issued by Union and state health departments. pic.twitter.com/pvdbak1g86— IANS Tweets (@ians_india) May 22, 2020
After risking their emotional and physical well-being, the least our frontline Corona warriors deserve is proper equipment and basic human courtesy. However, they are left fighting on the frontlines in substandard equipment and returning home to harassment from neighbours. Banging thalis, no matter how noble the intention, is no compensation for the constant sacrifice of our frontline warriors.