Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of the grim battle India has been waging against Covid-19 since early 2020. Constituting the most significant high-risk group, these frontline warriors were the first to receive the jab after the vaccination drive was launched in January this year. In the subsequent months, particularly April and May, at least 270 doctors have succumbed to the second wave of the pandemic, according to the Indian Medical Association (IMA). The casualties include both veteran and young medical practitioners: from 62-year-old Padma Shri awardee Dr KK Aggarwal, who had been posting instructive videos on social media and holding teleconsultation with patients, to Dr Rajan Singh (37), a senior resident doctor who had tested positive for the virus while discharging Covid duty in Government Rajindra Hospital, Patiala.
In a nation whose estimated doctor-patient ratio is 1:1,700, far less than the WHO-mandated 1:1,000, the death of scores of doctors portends deeper trouble for the already overstretched healthcare system. Only two-thirds of India’s health workers have been fully vaccinated till now. Can the protectors do their job properly when they are themselves unprotected against the virus? The IMA has stated that barely 3 per cent of the doctors who have died this year had received both shots. There is no doubt that the authorities have been found wanting in ensuring vaccine compliance for this vulnerable section. Last year, 748 doctors had died during the first wave. Unless the vaccination gaps are plugged promptly, the toll might go up sharply in 2021 as the second wave’s fatality rate remains high and the third one is looming large.
Another high-risk group, comprising crematorium workers, has escaped the attention of Central and state governments. Toiling under hazardous conditions without PPE kits, they have been cremating bodies of Covid victims on a daily basis. Their plight is underlined by the death of Praveen Kumar, an office-bearer of the Hisar MC Safai Karamchari Union who conducted the funeral of over 300 victims but eventually contracted the infection himself. The least that can be done is to frame a compensation policy for those who are eking out a living in the shadow of death.