As the global coronavirus pandemic worsens by the day, fear is swelling in India — and frontline medical workers are bearing the brunt of public panic.
India has reported 562 cases of the novel coronavirus so far, a relatively low number given the country’s size and density. But there are signs of rising anxiety amid a dramatic nationwide lockdown, with scenes of panic buying and targeted harassment of doctors and other frontline workers.
Medical staff in the national capital New Delhi say they have been ostracized and discriminated against by their communities due to fears that they may be infected after working with coronavirus patients. Some doctors have even reported being evicted, or facing threats that their electricity will be cut off.
“Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers involved in Covid care are being asked to vacate their rented homes and some have been even forcefully evicted from their temporary residence by landlords and house-owners due to the fear that those healthcare professionals make them susceptible to coronavirus infection,” said a letter from the Resident Doctors’ Association of New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, sent on Tuesday to Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
“Many doctors are now stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” said the letter, which urged Shah to take action to protect the embattled medical workers.
The reports of forced evictions were met with anger from some citizens online, as well as from local and health officials.
Harsh Vardhan, the union minister for health and family welfare, tweeted on Tuesday that he was “deeply anguished” to hear of doctors being ostracized.
“Please don’t panic,” he urged the public. “All precautions are being taken by doctors and staff on Covid-19 duty to ensure they’re not carriers of infection in any way. Any harsh steps will demoralize them, derail the system … It’s our bounden duty to keep their morale high.”
Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, also condemned the alleged evictions. “These doctors are saving our lives, putting their lives at risk,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “Their landlords should not do this. This is wrong.”
Minister Shah has since instructed police officials to investigate the issue and take immediate action, said Adarsh Pratap Singh, President of the Resident Doctors’ Association. The Delhi police commissioner also reached out to the association to offer assistance.
Shah later tweeted in support of the medical workers, and thanked them for risking their lives in the fight against the pandemic.
Airline staff are also being harassed
It’s not just medical workers — airline employees are also facing a backlash, especially those who were on repatriation flights to bring back stranded Indian citizens in virus-hit nations like China.
One video that has been widely circulated appears to show an employee of the airline IndiGo, describing how false rumors that she was infected have led to community members harassing her mother and refusing to sell her food at the market.
Police in Kolkata responded directly to the video, saying on Twitter that officers are assisting with her case and that “anyone discriminating against heroes, discharging their duties risking their own safety will be dealt with strictly.”
Employees from the national carrier Air India have also faced similar harassment in their communities, said a news release from the airline on Sunday.
“These vigilantes have conveniently forgotten that many a spouse, parent, sibling and near and dear one have been brought home safe and secure from affected countries, thanks to the heroic efforts of these Air India crew,” said the release.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted in support of the airline staff who have been targeted, and said he was “deeply distressed” to hear about the discrimination.
The harassment toward both airline staff and medical workers highlight widespread, heightened fear — and also the clash between public opinion and official government rhetoric.
Just days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had urged everyone nationwide to take five minutes to stand at their balconies or windows, to thank and pay tribute to “all those who are working 24/7 so that our nation becomes free from Covid-19.”
And all week, local, state, and federal officials have been trying to calm public fears. Modi, who ordered the complete nationwide lockdown on Tuesday, has reassured citizens that there is no need to panic buy and that supply lines were stable — but to little effect.
Images from across India on Tuesday night show huge crowds standing in line outside stores and jammed together in open-air markets, trying to stock up ahead of the lockdown, which began at midnight.
Under the three-week lockdown, more than 1.3 billion people in all states and territories will be banned from leaving their homes except for essential purposes. All shops, factories, markets and places of worship will be closed and interstate buses and metros will be suspended.