Doctors do not represent an organised vote bank. They cannot sway public opinion. They cannot bring about revolutions or topple governments. If this is how less you think of Doctors, it is time to read about Sudan.
In April, the dreaded Sudanese Dictator of past 30 years, Omar al-Bashir, was forced to resign by the army after a four-month-long sit-in and street protests organised by SPA (Sudanese Professionals Association) brought the country to a standstill. SPA is an alliance of Doctors’, Lawyers’, Teachers’, Engineers’ and other professional Unions. SPA has laid down certain basic demands- control over inflation, rise in basic minimum wages, creation of jobs and provision of equal rights for women.
This is not the first instance of doctors having forced out an unpopular government in Sudan. Earlier they had played instrumental roles during the 1964 and 1985 coups. Bashir had managed to survive the Arab Spring, a humanitarian crisis and pogrom in Darfur and the secession of South Sudan. But rising prices and a failing economy drew widespread protests which could not be contained. A doctor was shot dead in January by the armed forces and many others were beaten across the country in broad daylight for treating tortured protesters.
This goaded other medical practitioners (and professionals) into action. Soon they began providing not just assistance, but also provided articulate, strategic leadership to common dissidents. Their own working conditions had turned pathetic over the years as the longstanding economic crisis had hit the medical system hard. Doctors also undercut the regime by maintaining records of deaths and injuries sustained by protesters and making them public. The regime lost deniability, and hence its legitimacy.
Even as I write, SPA members are still on roads and sitting at various Squares, protesting against the Transitional government which is a Saudi stooge. On June 3rd, 100 protesters were shot dead and many were raped and injured in the brutal Khartoum Massacre ordered by the Army. Doctors want to save the April Revolution from going down the dreadful Egyptian path and maintain they are locked in a fight to the finish.
This is the power of doctors. We have seen them working across borders for WHO, Red Cross and Medicine Sans Frontiers. Doctors have been at the forefront of war against epidemics and contagious diseases. If they can fight in Sudan, surely they can send a very strong message in a democratic India as well.
The NRS Hospital incident in Kolkata is not a one-off. The brick that smashed the skull of an intern has been felt on his head by every medical professional in the country. This has become a new normal. Mobs, especially communal ones, don’t think twice before indulging in wanton destruction and hooliganism inside hospitals, especially private ones. Ghetto gangs operate with impunity and have active backing of local politicians. Doctors don’t matter electorally, whereas ghettos are of prime importance. There have been at least 30 such incidents of violent protests in the past two years in Kolkata alone when relatives and neighbours of the deceased have gone on rampage. Issues of discord range from dissatisfaction with hospitals’ response, not sharing of information by doctors, refusal to release corpses in time, unsettled bills, exorbitant medical costs and rudeness and apathy shown by the staff.
That public has just cause for complaints cannot be denied. Doctors, patients, and their well-wishers usually come in contact in high-pressure scenarios. When they visit hospitals, sick persons and their relatives are in a state of panic (even in case of minor ailments, something like the anxiety of the unknown and fear of expenses gnaw at them). The hospital staff is aware of queues and emergencies but has to follow rules and procedure of the establishment so that order can be maintained. And doctors, veritable gods, raised to the pedestal by the public themselves, appear calm, unfazed and all powerful ( and hence a bit distant). The patients’ side has multiple questions and some expectations, doctors might or not have all the answers. In the age of Google, it is not easy to satisfy offline queries. A hospital is a tinderbox, always a matchstick away from explosion.
Let us also not forget that Indian hospitals are understaffed and underequipped, and doctors are overworked. Bengal has 1 doctor for 1850 people, while the national average is 1 for 1670. Of course, the WHO mandated ratio is 1:1000. China has 1.5 and US has 2.6 doctors per 1000. Our health budgets are stagnant. A government doctor in India sees six times the number of patients every day that his American or European counterpart does. He can be expected to err sometimes. He must be forgiven for not answering all your queries. If he is in a corporate hospital, that inflated bill of yours is not his doing. If you bother him like a pest, expect him to snap. But he tries his best to save you and your loved ones. He is a lifesaver. He is the one with whom the buck stops.
The nature of their job is such that Doctors end up playing Gods. This allows them to exercise power over lives of men, and earn good money. It is not that there is no pressure on performance. Expectations are huge and it is difficult to fulfill all of them. Everyone has a tale or two about how they or their relatives were given wrong treatment, or fleeced by corporate hospitals, or faced misbehaviour at the hands of doctors or hospital staff. This ugly side of the profession does warrant introspection by medical practitioners. But no right-thinking individual can justify physical violence against doctors by uttering garbage like ‘just desserts’, ‘action-reaction’ and ‘greed begets violence’.
It needs to be remembered that the aggrieved have recourse to Section 304-A in IPC to deal with death by rash or negligent actions. Many states, including West Bengal, have enacted Medicare Act to deal with violence against medical personnel and destruction of property in medicare institutions. But implementation has been shoddy even in face of repeated attacks on private hospitals. Local state governments have tended to side with mobs and have taken public stands against private hospitals. This has emboldened ghetto gangs.
Dr. B.C. Roy was the first CM of West Bengal from 1948-62. He is considered as the maker of modern Bengal. His birthday, July 1, is celebrated as National Doctors’ Day. Kolkata also hosts Dr. Kotnis Memorial Committee, in the honour of Dr.D.N. Kotnis (from Solapur)and four other doctors who travelled to China between 1938-43 to take care of the wounded soldiers during Japanese occupation. Four other doctors had accompanied Dr.Kotnis- two of them Debesh Mukherjee and Bejoy Kumar Basu were from Kolkata itself, M.Atal from Allahabad and M.R.Cholekar. It is sad to note that doctors don’t feel safe anymore in this great city. Ghetto gangs are running extortion rackets. Relatives of patients do not arrive through trucks, militias do. This needs to change. Cops need to smarten up their acts.
About 1000 in-service doctors have resigned in protest. Junior doctors have held out against token apologies and cursory promises of the betterment of conditions. They should not budge. Society needs conscientious, hardworking doctors. Let us not forget that theirs is also a uniformed service, not quite like police and armed forces, who bother with a lot of etiquette and protocol, but white coats do signify the promise of help, peace, and life. Let us not make Shylocks out of them. It will not take our society anywhere.
Abhinav Pancholi, IRS, Kolkata. The author is an avid sports lover with a passion for literature.
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