Low wages, 24-hour shifts and the severe shortage of staff and protective equipment have left many doctors on the front lines of India’s brutal pandemic wave about to break down and fear their lives.
Coronavirus infections have killed at least 165,000 people in the great South Asian nation, home to some of the world’s most densely populated cities, since early April.
Although India’s latest increase in COVID-19 has recently softened, some 3,000 people continue to die every day and the chronically underfunded healthcare system continues to be under heavy pressure.
“We are overworked, stressed and very scared,” Radha Jain, a doctor in the capital of New Delhi, told AFP news agency.
The Medical Association of India said more than 1,200 doctors have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, including more than 500 in the past two months.
Deependra Garg, a doctor working on the outskirts of New Delhi, knows first hand how serious the situation has been.
His wife Anubha, 48, is a doctor, she fell ill with COVID-19 in April.
They started treatment at home, but as his condition worsened, he, like so many other families, struggled to get a hospital bed.
He finally found one almost 200 kilometers (120 miles) from his home. But Anubha, fully vaccinated, died two weeks later, leaving her 12-year-old daughter behind.
“We are on the front line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are exposed to a high virus load, but we must continue to work against all odds as we have chosen this profession, ”Garg said.
“We have no choice.”
Underfunded and over-extended
The pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses in India’s healthcare system, especially in poorly equipped state hospitals.
As the latest outbreak spread, reports emerged of hospitals with little personality of patients lying on the floor and sharing beds in full wards, as relatives protected by only cotton masks cared for their loved ones.
The government spends less than 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health, one of the lowest rates in the world.
India had only 0.8 doctors per 1,000 people in 2017, about the same level as Iraq, according to the World Bank. The other two countries most affected by the coronavirus, Brazil and the United States, had 2.2 and 2.6, respectively.
A pre-pandemic report from the U.S.-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy estimated that India needed 600,000 more doctors and two million additional nurses to meet its health needs.
Dr Shekhar Kumar, who works at a private hospital in northern Uttar Pradesh, said junior staff and senior medical students sometimes had to work 24-hour shifts.
“Compared to last year, this time patients need longer hospital stays, which increases the staff load,” Kumar said.
He added that they stretched even further when his colleagues fell ill with the virus.
Doctors said they had been traumatized by being forced to choose which patients to save first as they found themselves with an insufficient supply of medication and oxygen.
Ravikant Singh, the founder of a charity that helps set up COVID-19 field hospitals, said he had difficulty sleeping a few nights.
“It has been a life-changing situation for doctors,” Singh told AFP.
“The worst part was that we couldn’t save many lives due to lack of oxygen.”
Even after completing their punishment shifts, doctors said they were worried about infecting their families at home.
Kumar said he would constantly think about how the virus “was lurking anywhere and everywhere.”
“If doctors can’t save their (own) lives, how will they save the lives of others?” He said.