A dusty smelly room with only a mattress on the floor — no bed or chair, windowsills filled with bird droppings and stained corridors that have not been cleaned for days. This is the condition of the accommodation provided to doctors who are on the front lines of efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus in Tamil Nadu.
This is not in any remote village, but in the capital Chennai. The government has allotted these rooms to the doctors and medical interns, who are doing Compulsory Rotatory Residential Internship (CRRI), at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital and the Madras Medical College (MMC).
After the death of Dr Simon Hercules, a neurosurgeon, due to COVID-19 and the objections from some people to the burial of his body, the government on April 22 announced a compensation of ₹50 lakh to the kin of each frontline worker who dies of the disease. But redress is not the only demand of doctors.
Many healthcare staff have not yet been provided with personal protection equipment (PPE), despite the government claiming that it has enough masks and PPE kits. Amid this, the doctors have got a substandard accommodation. None of the doctors who have been treating patients in quarantine wards is allowed to return home. They work in rotational shifts and stay in these rooms.
The pathetic condition of the rooms came to light when Dr S Senthil Kumar, Lok Sabha member from Dharmapuri, posted their photos on Twitter. The MP says that besides the poor accommodation and food, interns are yet to receive their salary. “The state has extended the CRRI for one month. So, the interns wrote to the government seeking their salary for that period. But the government has not replied,” he says. “However, deans of hospitals say CRRIs won’t be paid.”
Other major institutions in the state like Stanely Medical College and Hospital are coping with the issues as some private companies have come forward to donate masks. Kumar says masks have run out of stock as the government had not procured enough. Adding to the woes of Tamil Nadu, the Centre has refrained states from buying the PPEs and other equipment. “This is against federalism.”
Many Indian companies that had been manufacturing PPE kits have been shut due to the lockdown. Some are producing them in limited quantities due to a small workforce. So, the Centre had ordered around 70 lakh PPE kits from foreign firms, but has received only 50,000. While this is not sufficient for all the states, there are no clear-cut guidelines on what basis the Centre will distribute them to the states, he says.
The Central government has also suspended MPLADS for two years. If we had the funds, we could have taken care of the procurement of PPE kits for the districts that fall under our constituencies, he says. Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami recently said in a statement that he “considers doctors as equivalent to God”. But it seems like the government pays only lip service, given the issues faced by doctors, says Kumar.
Dr M Venkatesan, senior vice president of the medical wing of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee too says doctors have been deprived of even N95 masks. “The government has left its doctors to fight the virus without basic equipment. Most healthcare workers wear only normal masks and not the N95 ones. The normal masks are meant to be disposed of, but many have been reusing them,” he says.
Stating that the government has enough funds, Venkatesan urges the state to spend the money from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund generously so that even doctors at primary health centres in remote villages get all the safety gears.
Accepting that there is a shortage of PPE kits, Dr S Pannir Selvam, secretary of the medical wing of the AIADMK, says it is not right to blame the government because nobody had anticipated a major crisis. “The government has been taking steps to meet the shortage, but there is a delay in procurement and distribution. We hope that it will be sorted out soon” he says, adding that many doctors have been buying PPE kits, spending ₹700.
At the time of a crisis, it is difficult for the government to address the shortage, says a former health department official “Government hospitals are generally understaffed and medical college hostels lack facilities. Such issues are augmenting now,” he says, adding that the state has been offering the best facilities possible. “While comparing doctors to the God, the government must also address their problems whole-heartedly,” he says.
However, Dr GR Ravindranath, the general secretary of Doctors’ Association for Social Equality (DASE), says the condition has slowly been changing. “Initially, there were problems like lack of accommodation or good food. Doctors treating COVID-19 patients were allotted hostel rooms, but it was dangerous as the virus could spread among them,” he says.
After repeated requests to the government, it started taking steps on April 22 like allotting rooms in star hotels for 14 days to the doctors who had worked one week in quarantine wards. “As of now, only doctors from the MMC have got this facility, he says, adding that it must be extended across the state,” says Ravindranath. DASE has demanded the same kind of treatment to all frontline workers, including sanitation staff.
In districts like Tirupattur and Ranipet that were recently carved out of the Vellore district, the number of positive cases is low. The doctors there have been provided with decent accommodation and safety gears. “The district administration has ensured that all hospitals have enough masks and PPE kits,” says a doctor from Tirupattur who recently completed his five-day shift. “We have been given a separate building to stay opposite to the isolation facility.”