Dr Navjot Dahiya, Vice President of Indian Medical Association (IMA), was one of the first doctors to come out and openly accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi for being a “super-propagator” of the coronavirus. An orthopedic surgeon working with the Jalandhar Global Hospital, Dahiya believes that the opinions of the medical fraternity were deliberately dismissed early in the crisis, resulting in a second deadly wave this year.
Q. You are probably one of the few doctors who publicized your angst and accused the prime minister of being a “super broadcaster” by organizing political rallies in states linked to the polls and allowing the Kumbh Mela to take place. ‘take place in the midst of a second wave pandemic.
A. When the first wave of the novel coronavirus hit India, our medical fraternity worked hard to instill the behavior of the COVID protocol in the general public, whether it was social distancing or wearing masks. When the second wave hit us, my hospital (Global Hospital) was immediately converted to a COVID hospital where patients and medical staff had to follow all protocols. At the end of 2020 and until the beginning of 2021, we would tell our patients to adhere to the protocols, but they would turn around and tell us that we only gave them a feeling of fear, especially since the First minister and his cabinet were seen attacking each other in a big way. political rallies without bothering to wear masks.
Modi behaved the same way last year, when the first COVID-19 patient was found in India in January 2020. Our Prime Minister was busy organizing a large rally of more than a lakh to greet the President American of the time Donald Trump in Ahmedabad. It was also a very common event at that time. We have wasted an entire year because no attempt has been made to strengthen our health system in the past twelve months.
Q. What has kept the medical fraternity from speaking out and criticizing the PM and his cabinet all these months? Why are you doing this now?
A. Our hospital – like most hospitals across the country – is facing a shortage of oxygen and life-saving medicines. We feel completely helpless. Our hospital is too small to be able to set up its own oxygen plant and we depend on the government to replenish our supplies. Several projects to install oxygen plants were pending demining from the central government, without the Modi government taking into account such an important need.
But to say that we did not voice our criticism earlier is wrong. We criticized the government, but our criticism was ignored by the media. Over the past six years, we have been extremely critical when the Medical Council of India was dissolved. We were on the roads to protest when medics and handbags were attacked in Kolkata during the first wave of COVID-19.
We expressed strong protests against the government when it introduced the Clinical Establishment Act wwhich made it mandatory for small nursing homes and maternity hospitals located in mohallas and secondary routes to invest in expensive equipment. This CEA openly favors large corporate hospitals because how should small clinics be able to invest in high end equipment given that the payment capacity of most patients in India is very low? We doctors have organized several mahapanchayats in Delhi against the fee hikes that have forced students today to pay a lot more money to get a medical degree. We are a poor country and this should not be forgotten.
Q. How come the medical fraternity has not demanded that the government establish a roadmap to deal with the pandemic?
A. There have been repeated requests from us to establish protocols, set up oxygen factories and strengthen our indigenous pharmaceutical industry. When the first wave arrived, there weren’t enough PPE kits and we were importing kits. Now the situation has changed. But we need technocrats to advise the bureaucrats, which is not the case.
Q. … but label the PM as a super spreader?
A. In our country, people rely on religious and political leaders and imitate what they do. When our political leaders are seen touring and rallying, people are inspired by it. So while our frontline health workers follow all COVID protocols, the same protocols are clearly being disobeyed by our politicians, creating an atmosphere conducive to this surge. The result is there for everyone to see. Corpses are piling up in crematoriums and there are long lines of ambulances outside hospitals in almost every city in the country.
Q. But the state of Punjab also went ahead and held panchayat elections. It is not that Punjab CM Amarinder Singh has shown discretion …
A. Yes, Punjab went ahead and held panchayat elections, as did several other states, including Madhya Pradesh and the UP. I don’t know what the constitutional constraints were that forced them to go ahead with such a process.
Q. Even if the government had not prepared a roadmap, surely the medical fraternity could have prepared one and put it in the public domain?
A. We doctors are already fighting fires by trying to save the lives of patients. We are not politicians. Our interactions with government are at the substitute decision-maker and sub-collector level, who just don’t understand our point of view. To give you an example, with the current oxygen shortage, the government has started to allocate allocations to each hospital. One hospital receives 40 bottles, the other 20 bottles and so on. But what if, in the middle of the night, we saw four more patients? Where are we going to generate the extra oxygen from?
There should be a consistent policy on how much oxygen is supplied and how much will be set aside for contingencies. As a doctor, I get a minimum of 15-20 phone calls every day from people in Delhi who want to transfer their patients to Jalandhar as they are facing a shortage of beds and oxygen in Delhi. It is happening all over Punjab and it is the safest way to spread the virus to every corner of the country.
My question is: why has the Modi government not carried out basic mapping and resulting policy of oxygen and drug needs for the approximately 30,000 hospitals and nursing homes if there is at 100% occupancy?
Q. Are you saying that there is no road map in place?
A. We did not receive any such waybill. As a private practitioner, I still don’t know what system will be in place, when and what to follow. Each city faces its own ad hoc guidelines. For the first time, we received Google Forms to fill out. All of this had to be sorted out well in advance. People need to be told how much to pay and which hospitals listed offer what type of services.
Q. What is the situation in Punjab?
A. We are in a much better position. Speaking on behalf of Jalandhar, I would like to point out that when we started to face an oxygen shortage, we created an informal association of retirement homes and pooled our resources and we help each other with de oxygen and other supplies.
Q. You were also very critical of the way the Modi government handled the agitation of the farmers.
A. Even on the issue of agitation by farmers against agricultural laws, Modi did not act responsibly. He made no serious attempt to resolve their issues. During a pandemic, it allowed groups of farmers to come together in large numbers, causing a serious threat of the spread of infection.
Q. Should the responsibility for this second wave also be placed on the shoulders of the Minister of Health, Harsh Vardhan, who is by the way a qualified doctor?
A. There is no doubt that the Minister of Health should be held accountable, but the general impression is that all decisions are in the hands of the PMO and his team of bureaucrats.
Q. When will we likely see this upward curve stabilize?
A. In Punjab we have seen NRIs arriving with the British variant. There is a flattening of the curve around Jalandhar (Doaba) but this is not the case in the region of Bathinda and Malwa. I can’t say for the rest of the country. One in four people test positive today. I’m not a virologist but maybe another 15 to 20 days. Following scientific knowledge and all COVID protocols is the only way to control this pandemic.
Rashme Sehgal is a freelance journalist.