Violence against healthcare workers: Courts, law enforcing agencies must ensure zero tolerance

Sanjeev Sirohi*

Nothing on earth can be more disgusting, more degrading and more demoralizing than to see that how brazenly so many dastardly and cowardly acts of unprovoked and uncalled for attacks against doctors and healthcare workers have been carried out ever since the outbreak of this corona pandemic is going on! We must be honest enough to concede that the Covid-19 pandemic is akin to a full fledged war which is completely unprecedented where we don’t even know where the enemy is hiding and who can spread it so easily by just body contact also!

We also must be gracious enough to concede that the doctors and other health staff are our new frontline soldiers and they must be protected from violence against any lumpen elements and those who dare to attack them must be meted out the most severe punishment so that a stern and strong message goes out that violence against them who risk their own lives to protect their patients will not go unpunished and unaccounted for!

Doctors are rendering willingly so many sacrifices and hardships that it cannot be described in words! Dr Javed Ali Huda had barely removed his PPE after a long day attending to the patients at the emergency OPD of Meerut’s Lala Lajpat Rai Memorial (LLRM) Medical College when he received the heart breaking news of his father’s untimely demise. He had to give the funeral a miss. He laid bare his feelings while controlling his emotions that, “I wanted to go home and see my father one last time. But, I am a doctor and could not have risked the lives of others back home. I was put on a video call and my family sent me pictures of my father’s burial!”

There are so many such similar instances where doctors have willingly given the highest priority to their sacred duty placing them above their family and their near and dear ones! Still can we ever allow violence against doctors who are the living form of “God” who attend to their patients most willingly without any discrimination under any circumstances?

The dire need for a strict law to protect doctors and health workers was felt most when two medical doctors – Zakiya Syed and Trupti Katdare were attacked and pelted with stones by a violent mob in a dense settlement in Indore. These two medical doctors had then fled to save their own lives but they then returned to the spot a day later along with their team of health workers to screen people for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Dr Zakiya Syed said that, “I am injured but not scared at all. This won’t deter me from doing my duty.”

It is a solace to see that the Union Government too acted with alacrity and approved an ordinance to amend and strengthen the Indian Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, making offences against doctors and nurses cognizable, non-bailable and carrying imprisonment terms from six months to seven years. We also saw how even the Indian Medical Association too taking serious note of the repeated attacks on doctors and health workers did not shy away from calling a two-day strike by the doctors on April 22 and 23. When the Union Home Minister Amit Shah assured them that no guilty attackers would ever be spared under any circumstances that the strike was ultimately called off!

It is reassuring to see that even the PM Narendra Modi has strongly condemned the growing attacks against doctors and reiterated his government’s full solidarity with doctors and health workers by following a zero tolerance policy against all such attackers. This alone explains why it has not dithered in enacting a strict law also to protect doctors from dastardly attacks by those with criminal bent of mind. This was in fact the crying need of the hour also!

Soon after the Union Cabinet had approved the ordinance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there can be no compromise on the safety of healthcare professionals fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. He also eloquently pointed out that, “The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 manifests our commitment to protect each and every healthcare worker who is bravely battling COVID-19 on the frontline. It will ensure safety of our professionals” The Centre has also made it clear that the law will mandate that the police complete the probe in such cases within 30 days and that the courts pronounce judgment within a year! Very rightly so!

SK Sarin who is Director of Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, Delhi has minced no words in observing in his enlightening editorial titled “The safety of healers” in ‘The Indian Express’ dated April 27, 2020 that, “While hundreds of acts of violence against doctors have been reported every year for the past two decades, many more are never brought to light. Doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals will remember the day the Union government passed an ordinance ensuring that acts of violence against doctors and other medical staff will be a cognizable and non-bailable. Imprisonment from six months to seven years and a penalty from Rs 50,000 to Rs 7 lakh can be sanctioned by the courts. Such punishments will serve as a deterrent to unruly patients and their relatives, if found guilty.”

In the same editorial, Dr SK Sarin while continuing in the same vein adds a caveat by pointing out that, “Will the courts change their outlook in the wake of the new ordinance? If these very warriors are ostracised while returning from work or are thrown out of their houses, bruised by a crowd pelting stones, will the courts and judges rise to the occasion and take suo motu action? Will they be able to deliver timely and exemplary punishments and safeguard the dignity and lives of HCPs? Healthcare professionals need a sensitive and accountable judicial system and this ordinance should be given more punch and wider applicability in the times to come.”

Furthermore, AIIMS Resident Doctors Association (RDA) General Secretary Dr Srinivas Rajkumar T said while welcoming the Centre’s decision that, “We appreciate the central government for taking note of this situation, albeit late, and ensuring immediate amendments are made as feasible so that frontline warriors are able to serve the country without fear.”

The Union Health Ministry also advised the Chief Secretaries of all states and Union Territories to adopt adequate measures in ensuring the safety of the health workers. Separately, the Union Home Ministry in a letter asked all states and Union Territories to provide adequate security to doctors and front-line health workers who are facing attacks from unruly people. Amit Shah who is Union Home Minister also told a group of doctors and representatives of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) that safety of health care professionals treating the virus infected patients is non-negotiable.

Going forward, the Home Ministry letter sent by Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla to all State Chief Secretaries also urged that governments impose strict penalties against those obstructing the functioning of healthcare workers and against those offenders who obstruct the last rites of healthcare workers who may have died due to Covid-19 or any other reason. It also asked states and Union Territories to appoint a nodal officer both at the state and at the district level on a 24×7 basis, to redress any safety issues of medical professionals. It also conceded that at this time, even a single incident of violence against healthcare professionals was likely to create a sense of insecurity among the entire healthcare community!

Of course, we must also pay attention to what Dr Ullas Batra who is Senior Consultant, Medical Oncology of Rajiv Gandhi Institute and Research Centre Delhi says on the proposed ordinance which the President recently approved also that, “This ordinance is exclusively for those doctors who are working to treat COVID-19 patients. In my opinion, it needs to be extended to all medical doctors.” Centre too must pay heed to what Dr Batra has said so plainly!

No doubt, this new ordinance protects not just doctors but also paramedical staff and accredited social health activists. It is also provided that two times the cost to be recovered from vandals if cars or clinics of health care professionals are damaged! There is also the provision of Rs 50 lakh insurance for health workers.

What now truly matters most is strict, swift and sincere implementation of the new law to ensure that there is zero tolerance for any kind of violence or threat or intimidation in any form against not just doctors but also health workers which include nurses, paramedical staff among others! It is solely because of them that India has managed to limit the death casualty to such a low level not crossing the figure of even ten thousand even though in advanced and developed countries like USA, the death toll has exceeded one lakh and ten thousand for which they deserve full credit also! This has certainly enhanced the reputation of our country at the world stage also!

In other words, this alone explains that why even PM Narendra Modi has also while appreciating the relentless work done by them expressed his firm commitment and resolve to ensure that those who attack them are dealt with sternly and strictly and not left scotfree under any circumstances for which he certainly deserves accolades! It must be now ensured that not even a single act of violence against doctors, nurses and health workers should ever go unpunished under any circumstances, come what may! This again is possible only if this new ordinance is implemented in totality against all those who dare to attack doctors and health workers in any way!

The ball is now clearly in the court of the courts, police and law enforcing agencies who must lead from the front by ensuring that no guilty is ever spared under any circumstances for which special police officers should also be appointed to serve its purpose! This will certainly help resolve the issue of scarcity of law enforcers for immediate response!

Only then will a loud and clear message go out to one and all that there shall be zero tolerance from now onwards against any form of dastardly attack against doctors and health workers! Also, the government must now leave no stone unturned to ensure that the provisions of this new ordinance are disseminated widely using all the tools at its disposal so that people become aware fully about it and are able to use it when needed!

Even the political parties too must now step forward and lead from the front and ask their cadres to inform the people of this new ordinance! Only then can this new ordinance serve its true purpose for which it has been enacted! There can be certainly no denying or disputing it!

*Advocate, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh

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