As the country struggles to breathe, people fight in a combat with death grappling for oxygen support and hospital beds, and while the government watches indifferent to the clarion call, a group of civic-minded doctors organise to render social services.
For Kafeel Khan, the pediatrician who has seen the warmth and wrath of social media after the Gorakhpur incident in 2017, the current situation is a haunting Deja vu of the tragedy that happened at BRD medical college in Gorakhpur.
“I can see myself in the doctors who beseech every day for oxygen support. It is reminiscent of my pleas for oxygen support while witnessing the deaths of 63 children,” he told Maktoob.
The initiative “Doctors on Road”, the brainchild of Dr. Kafeel Khan and Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti was conceived after realising the appalling conditions of the marginalised communities living in the hinterlands of the cities after the second wave struck India in mid-April.
“Doctors on Road”, inaugurated on April 14, the birth anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, provides services to underprivileged sections of the society by making them aware of COVID-19 appropriate behaviour.
Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti, National President of Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum, one of the kingpins in the initiative, explains how the Dalits, minorities and migrants were neglected as health has not been affordable to them.
“Even if they need treatment and hospital facilities, they cannot bear the expenses. So, we stepped up to make them aware of COVID-19-appropriate behaviour,” he says.
The doctors distribute masks, soaps, sanitizers in the crowded and poor colonies in UP, Bihar, Delhi, Rajasthan.
“Many volunteers have come to the fore and the project is getting a pan-India reach,” says Kafeel Khan.
Indian media pay scant attention to the crises in the peripheries of the cities, accuses Dr. Khan. “No one is bothered about these places and the people suffer in silence,” according to Khan.
Ninety per cent of the infected cases do not require hospitalisation and the contagion can be curbed from spreading by administering medicines and imparting understanding of COVID-19 protocols like physical distancing, masking and hand sanitising.
“We provide them with details of hospitals to approach, helpline numbers and primary treatment to avail if anyone in these families gets infected,” Dr. Khan added.
“Physical distancing is a privilege and impossible for these people, but however meagre be their ways to combat the virus like using masks and sanitizers, these are better than remaining idle,” Dr. Bhatti says.
The work beyond their call of duty comes at a time when healthcare is collapsing.
“I am a doctor and have taken the oath. As people in the marginalised communities cannot go to these hospitals, we make sure healthcare reaches them,” he further said.
Dr. Bhatti, coming from a middle-class family, was educated in government schools and government medical colleges. “The public funded my education. I don’t want to be laid-back, have a luxurious life and buy cars. I am repaying for all that the society has invested in me,” he told Maktoob.
The state of the poor is precarious. However, the government is apathetic, both of them share the view. “The Central government is marketing itself with advertisements though there has been no groundwork to further their claims of development. The second wave is more frightening because the last time there were lockdowns, surveillance by police, isolation of patients. On the contrary, this year, the patients are roaming around, mass gatherings go on ceaselessly” Dr. Bhatti says.
The privatisation of vaccines and States being asked to procure it directly from the private players is alarming, says Dr. Khan. “Centre should procure the entire stock and deploy them free of cost all across the country,” he adds.
According to Dr. Khan, the private players have increased the price and made it difficult for the poor in the country.
“I made a call to the Serum Institute of India and they asked me to deposit Rs. 50 lakhs before getting into further talks. Bharat Biotech officials asked me to call after five months,” Khan claims, throwing light on the quagmire.
The government has washed their hands off completely, even the State governments, Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti adds. “Why don’t they conduct daily press conferences and health briefings? Only Kerala does that and it was reflected in their health minister’s victory in the recent legislative assembly elections,” he said.
The pressure on the crippled health system like the hardships of securing oxygen cylinders and beds to meet the daily spurt in cases have revealed the collapse of the healthcare system in the country.
“The government is sleeping. There is a pandemic fatigue. The Prime Minister had announced that 500 oxygen plants would be built, but that is far from reality,” Dr. Kafeel Khan lashed out at the Narendra Modi government.
Aiswarya is a student journalist at Asian College of Journalism with a penchant for politics.