NEW DELHI—Instead of taking curative steps like giving insurance to healthcare professionals who treat patients affected by coronavirus, the Narendra Modi government must focus on implementing preventive steps like providing them World Health Organisation (WHO)-approved protective gear, Dr. Jerryl Banait told HuffPost India in an interview.
The Nagpur-based doctor—who filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking provision of adequate WHO-approved protective gear for healthcare workers—was responding to a question about whether Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement about the government setting up a special Rs 50 lakh COVID-19 health insurance scheme for doctors, nurses, ward boys, among others, was adequate.
“It is not a question about whether it is adequate or not, it is a curative measure. What about the preventive measures? Why not act upon things to prevent the coronavirus from infecting healthcare professionals?” he asked.
He explained his reason for focusing on preventive measures in detail. “If there are signs and symptoms and I am falling sick, and then you are bringing in insurance, that is a curative measure. Why are you not providing me equipment and not diverting the funds to provide these materials to me in advance so that I do not contract the disease? If I contract the disease and you are bringing in the insurance company, I might contaminate my family, they are not covered under insurance,” he said.
“If there are signs and symptoms and I am falling sick, and then you are bringing in insurance, that is a curative measure. Why are you not providing me equipment and not diverting the funds to provide these materials to me in advance so that I do not contract the disease?”
Thus, he pointed out that “preventive steps” have to be taken rather than thinking about “curative steps”, though he clarified that he isn’t against the insurance idea per se.
Dr. Banait, who previously worked at the Government Medical College in Nagpur, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in late March seeking three things: a) making available protective equipment in metros and in Tier 2 and 3 cities to health workers; (b) increasing facilities for testing and screening; and (c) framing guidelines for testing through private agencies, including pricing and modalities for testing.
A two-judge bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah heard the matter on Wednesday and directed the Union government to file its reply. Speaking with HuffPost India a few hours after the order came out, the young doctor said the ground reality is far different from the claims made by the government and urgent intervention to make available protective gear is needed.
“I would like to thank the Supreme Court and the government for taking cognisance of this case. Everybody is trying their best but unfortunately, the ground reality is a little different from what is on paper,” he said. “I appreciate the government’s steps to get these PPE kits to all doctors but they have to do it much faster because the pandemic will not stop for our actions. It has to prevent it rather than cure.”
When asked to explain what this ground reality is, Dr Banait shared a sobering picture of the challenges being faced by doctors. “There are many associations of healthcare professionals going on strike. See, everybody wants to work, everybody wants to serve, they have taken the Hippocratic Oath but not at the cost of our own lives,” he said.
He further added that doctors are “working overtime to provide care” and in many hospitals “on paper everything seems very perfect and everything seems going very smoothly, but the ground reality is that resident doctors at the government-run institutions are overworking, they are scared for the safety of their own families”. He explained that this is so because the doctors are “exposed to the virus and they are going back to their families who get exposed to the virus as well”.
Dr Banait was echoing reports coming in from across the country and the experiences of his family members, all of whom are doctors and intimately aware about the challenges faced by the fraternity in dealing with the response of the health system to the coronavirus pandemic.
On March 30, for instance, the Telangana Junior Doctors Association announced a “silent boycott” of services after as many as 16 doctors were exposed to a child who tested positive for coronavirus. They said hundreds of doctors were being similarly exposed to COVID-19 patients without N-95 masks and personal protection equipment.
HuffPost India’s Betwa Sharma has reported the case of a doctor who was harassed by the police in West Bengal after he pointed out the absence of protective gear for doctors in public hospitals in a Facebook post. Also, this report by Piyasree Dasgupta revealed the concerns of doctors from across multiple government hospitals in the country, including those funded by the Modi government.
Aware of these widely discussed concerns, Dr Banait told HuffPost India in the interview what doctors need urgently. “We need equipment for our own protection, which is of WHO standardisation and we want to have more isolation rooms for the doctors also so that they are not exposing their families to the virus. Third is to provide us transportation from place A to place B so that we do not contaminate anyone else if we are exposed to the virus,” he said.
He expressed hope that the Modi government will provide the doctors “some relief” as they are “acting as soldiers on the warfront.”
He expanded that analogy further by saying, “You cannot send a soldier to war without any ammunition so you cannot send a doctor without any proper gear or equipment to screen the virus which is as deadly as anything else.”
The SC is expected to hear the centre’s reply next week. On April 1, the same day as the Apex court sought its response to Dr Banait’s petition, the Modi government’s National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority wrote to the Chief Secretaries of all states seeking information about availability of all essential medical equipment with them.