'Afraid to be a nurse': Celebrated in some countries for efforts against COVID-19, healthcare workers face abuse in others

In many cities, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have been celebrated with choruses of applause and cheers from windows and rooftops for providing the front-line defence against the pandemic

The New York Times April 28, 2020 07:19:57 IST
'Afraid to be a nurse': Celebrated in some countries for efforts against COVID-19, healthcare workers face abuse in others

Mexico City: The senior nurse went on national television to make a plea on behalf of her fellow healthcare workers: Please stop assaulting us.

Nurses working under her auspices had been viciously attacked around Mexico at least 21 times, accused of spreading the coronavirus . Many were no longer wearing their uniforms as they travelled to or from work for fear of being hurt, said the official, Fabiana Zepeda Arias, chief of nursing programmes for Mexico’s Social Security Institute.

“We can save your lives,” she said, addressing the assailants. “Please help us take care of you, and for that we need you to take care of us.”

In many cities, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have been celebrated with choruses of applause and cheers from windows and rooftops for providing the front-line defence against the pandemic.

But in some places healthcare workers, stigmatised as vectors of contagion because of their work, have been assaulted, abused and ostracised.

In the Philippines, attackers doused a nurse with bleach, blinding him. In India, a group of medical workers was chased by a stone-throwing mob. In Pakistan, a nurse and her children were evicted from their apartment building.

Dozens of attacks on healthcare workers have been reported in Mexico, where intense outbreaks among hospital staff of COVID-19 , the disease caused by the coronavirus , have unnerved residents and members of the medical community alike. Scores of doctors and nurses have fallen ill in several hospitals around the country, and widespread demonstrations have erupted among healthcare workers complaining about inadequate protective equipment.

Nurses in the state of Jalisco reported being blocked from public transportation because of their occupation. A nurse in Culiacán, capital of the state of Sinaloa in Mexico’s northwest, said she was drenched with chlorine while walking along the street.

Afraid to be a nurse Celebrated in some countries for efforts against COVID19 healthcare workers face abuse in others

Representational Image. AFP

In Merida, a city on the Yucatán Peninsula, a nurse said he was hit with an egg thrown by someone passing on a motorcycle.

Zepeda Arias, who spoke last week at a news conference, said 21 of her Social Security Institute nurses had been attacked in the past month.

“It hurts to talk about this; it hurts to talk about what happens to your people,” she said, fighting back tears. “Aggression is not something that anyone wants. We truly invite you to respect us.”

The attacks against medical workers seem to be rooted in fear and ignorance fed by misinformation, said Edith Mujica Chávez, president of the Inter-Institutional Commission of Nurses in the state of Jalisco.

“It is understandable, considering how much uncertainty and misinformation there is out there,” she said in an interview. “You have some people panicking and locking themselves in their houses, others thinking nothing will happen to them and going around carefree, and others thinking it is nurses and doctors who will spread the virus because we are in contact with patients.”

Mexico moved more slowly than other countries in the region to require social distancing and encourage people to stay home, and the number of coronavirus cases has risen sharply in recent weeks. On Sunday night, government officials reported 14,677 confirmed cases in the country and 1,351 deaths.

Authorities have said that the confirmed cases include more than 500 healthcare workers.

Mexican officials have condemned the aggression against doctors and nurses and characterised the episodes as isolated.

At a news conference Friday night, Dr Hugo López-Gatell, a deputy health minister, called the attacks and discrimination against medical crews working to keep the country safe “extremely worrying, absolutely unacceptable.”

“All of this is inexplicable to a certain extent; it is surprising,” he said. “Precisely the people who have the best possibility and the best intention of helping — the health workers who are on the front line of response — are attacked for the fact that they are health workers.”

Scattered accounts of hostility have circulated around the world.

In the Philippines, a nurse in the southern province of Sultan Kudarat was attacked by five men who thought he was infected with the virus because of his work. They poured bleach on his face, leaving him with what his doctors said could be permanent damage to his eyesight.

In a televised speech this month, the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, warned that people who discriminated against healthcare workers would be dealt with swiftly.

“I want to order the police to arrest anyone who harasses them,” he said. “ Once in prison, do not feed them. Let them starve.”

In India, healthcare workers have reported being physically attacked, spat at and threatened with sexual violence for treating patients with the coronavirus .

Doctors in protective gear were chased by a stone-throwing mob early this month in the central city of Indore after they tried to screen a woman for COVID-19 .

“They screamed, ‘Catch them! Hit them!’ ” one of the doctors, Zakia Sayed, recalled in an interview with India Today. “We don’t know how and why the situation got so bad.”

Reports of healthcare workers being blocked from their homes by fearful neighbours — or evicted altogether by landlords — have proliferated in several countries.

Ghazala Bhatti, a nurse in Karachi, and the mother of three children, said her landlord had asked her to vacate their apartment because of fears that she would infect others in the building after treating COVID-19 patients.

“The landlord told me that he is worried about the health of his 72-year-old father battling cancer, who also lives on the first floor of the building,” said Bhatti, who moved in with her brother because she was unable to find a place to rent with the city on lockdown.

“I am heartbroken,” she said. “I have never felt afraid to be a nurse until it happened.”

A doctor at a government hospital in Odisha filed a police complaint against residents of her apartment building after they accused her of spreading the virus. In her statement, the doctor said one resident threatened her with rape if she did not move out.

Dr Sanjibani Panigrahi, who works at a hospital in Surat, said neighbours had tried to bar her from entering her building, telling her she should be “shunted out of society”.

“I don’t know how long I can stay here,” she said in an interview. “There is so much panic and hysteria right now. Being a doctor has become a stigma.”

Kirk Semple c.2020 The New York Times Company

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