Feeble enforcement of laws keeps doctors at risk of irate mobs

Despite the Centre and states having separate laws to protect healthcare workers from abuse, the latter rue that police often book the assaulters under IPC instead of the special laws

Doctors
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only increased the pressure on doctors, but has also made them vulnerable to attacks by relatives of patients in case of deaths | Representative Photo: PTI

Following an attack on healthcare professionals at Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) Hospital in Imphal last week, Manipur police arrested two people for assault and vandalism on June 5.

Relatives of a 33-year-old patient who succumbed to COVID allegedly manhandled doctors on duty, vandalised the COVID-19 ICU ward and damaged the oxygen concentrators. The entire incident was captured on the hospital’s CCTV camera.

The Indian Medical Association of Manipur condemned the incident and sought exemplary punishment for the perpetrators. They asked the police to book them under the Manipur Medicare Service Personnel and Medicare Service Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage to Property) Act, 2015 and Epidemic Disease (Amendment) Ordinance 2020.

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The incident comes close on the heels of a similar incident in Assam where 24 people beat up Dr Seuj Kumar following the death of a COVID-19 patient. Most of the accused were family members of the deceased. The mob assaulted the doctor and videos shot by staff that were circulated on social media showed them kicking and hitting the doctor on his head with medical equipment.

Similarly, relatives of a six-year-old who died of dengue on May 29 in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district, attacked a paediatric doctor.

The healthcare system in Manipur was on the verge of collapse in April and May, just when the second wave of the COVID-19 infection ripped through the country. Hospitals overflowed with critical cases and beds and medical oxygen was in short supply. Besides, several people in home isolation too succumbed to COVID. As a consequence, a spate of attacks followed on medical professionals across the country in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Goa.

Also read: Read more than an act to put an end to attack on doctors

Doctors in several states boycotted services for a day to show solidarity with their fellow doctors and demanded the states to deal with the perpetrators strictly. An Indian Medical Association study in 2019 showed 75 per cent of the doctors in India faced violence at some point in time during their service. Following this, a case was filed in the Supreme Court to ask the Centre to pass a law to protect the interest of healthcare professionals.

Doctors feel the law was brought in half-heartedly and state legislations have not been communicated well.

Close to 20 states have passed separate legislation to protect healthcare service personnel (doctors, nurses, medical and nursing students, and paramedical staff). These states include Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Manipur, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tripura, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. Consolidated data on the cases booked under the Act was not available.

Andhra Pradesh, during the tenure of Chief Minister YS Rajashekhara Reddy in 2007, a doctor himself, brought a law to stop violence against doctors and made it a non-bailable offence with a penalty of up to ₹50,000 and a jail term of three years.

Similarly, Karnataka had Karnataka prohibition of violence against medicare service personnel and damage to property in medicare service institution Act brought in 2009.

Also, the central government last year brought the ordinance on April 22 to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, to make incidents of violence on health workers treating COVID-19 patients a non-bailable offense. It included a penalty clause and jail term of up to five years. The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Act, 2020, passed in the parliament replaced this ordinance.

“There is a lack of awareness among the police personnel. While booking a case, the police usually book them under an assault case under IPC and not refer to the special state Acts enacted to protect doctors,” HM Prasanna of Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association in Karnataka said.

“The central law is implemented half-heartedly. The government wakes up to book cases when there’s an assault. It doesn’t address the part of educating police and the public,” he added.

Prasanna feels that only when strict actions are taken and the accused are prosecuted for the offence, people will realise the seriousness of the crime as is the case with the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

TA Veerabhadraiah, a member of the Karnataka Medical Council said, the past instances of politicians getting involved in such attacks and lack of police action have resulted in people taking the law into their hands when they feel cheated. BJP MP Ananth Kumar Hedge in 2017 assaulted a doctor – he had held the medical professional by the neck and pushed him. The police booked the case under various provisions of IPC and the state act to protect healthcare professionals. Yet the MP was not punished.

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Veerabhadraiah feels that earlier the attacks were largely on private doctors and it’s now changing as even government hospital doctors are getting beaten up.

“The law should not remain merely on paper. The perpetrators should be brought to justice and punished with rigorous imprisonment. Otherwise, it won’t change the situation,” Veerabhadraiah said.

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