Living and working with the stigma called Covid-19I will most likely be infected with the virus in the next few days or months. But I became a physician knowing the job incurred risks.
Shortly after your arrival, a patient arrives gasping. Short of breath. Fever.
A chill runs down your spine but you have no time to contemplate. You quickly assess the patient and carry out the immediate interventions.
More patients arrive. More assessments. More interventions.
You are dripping in sweat inside your protective suit. It is starting to get uncomfortable inside. You want to rip it off and throw your mask away but you quickly come back to your senses—because these are the only set of protective gear you have.
In between hours, your phone keeps beeping. It's your mother checking up on you. 'Stay safe,' she reminds you, now and then. Every day you leave for work, you leave your family anxious at home.
It’s already late afternoon and you realise you haven’t had a sip of water all morning. You are too afraid to take off your mask. You think water can wait until lunch time.
It’s lunch time. You wash your hands thoroughly. All seven steps you count. Has it been twenty seconds? You are not sure. You repeat the hand washing. You cautiously take off your mask. Get your lunch. Eat as fast as you can. And get back to your shift.
A few more patients. And it’s time to leave.
Before you leave the hospital, you wipe everything. Your phone, your wallet, your water bottle. Check again. Are you sure? You wipe again.
You get home. You get into the shower as quickly as you can making sure you don’t touch anyone, anything. You have an ageing father who is on anti-hypertensive and anti-diabetic drugs. You fear you carried the virus home. So you go to your room and lock yourself up. Home isolation.
This is what everyday looks like for a doctor at the emergency department. Here, patients arrive with symptoms and no diagnosis at all. Doctors have to think on their feet and take immediate interventions before they have time to screen the patient for Covid-19.
For young doctors like me, this is all very new. We have never been put face to face with this level of anxiety and stress. Even senior doctors are having a difficult time coping with the stress. We have had emergencies in the past. But this is different because of the scale and uncertainty of the disease. The protocol we must follow changes every few hours to meet the shifting dynamics of the disease. Add to that the shortage of protective gears. Some health care centers are down to one surgical mask per shift, some per day.
The stress level only increases when coworkers start testing positive.
Personally, I feel like I am dipping into the swamp every day, where we are having to fight the disease in the workplace. And then when they come home, they have to fight society.
Recently, a video surfaced on social media of a group of people outside a rented apartment of a medical professional demanding their eviction assuming they will bring the virus home. In Kathmandu and other various parts of Nepal, multiple cases of various sorts of intimidating and discriminatory behaviors against health workers have been reported. And this is not a lone incident. Similar instances against health workers have occurred elsewhere in the country and abroad too. And it got me thinking that perhaps the bigger fear is not the virus itself but the stigma attached to it and our lack of humanity even in the face of a crisis.
There is no denying the coronavirus has brought humanity to its feet and we as a society have failed. The health care systems of countries deemed the most developed have failed in front of our eyes. As cases flare up day by day, it is expected that a certain number of healthcare workers will have to miss work because they or their family members will be ill. While healthcare workers risk their lives on the frontline, society, with its discriminatory attitude and behavior, is demoralising already scarce manpower, further weakening the already vulnerable health care system of our country.
It is clear: we still do not realise our own vulnerability.
Our hospitals only have a limited number of ICU beds isolated to treat Covid-19 patients. Hospitals are nearing capacity and we are running out of ICU beds and ventilators. Ambulance sirens don't stop beeping. The number of cases will continue to rise as they have in the past few days. Our health care systems will become overwhelmed at any moment; a total collapse of the system can be very much anticipated.
I will most likely be infected with the virus in the next few days or months. But I became a physician knowing the job incurred risks and that I have a duty towards my patients and society. Even today, at the face of this pandemic and uncertainty, I wouldn't trade this life for anything because this is what I signed up for.
At such a testing time, we, as a society, need to introspect. Where are we headed? What choices are we making? What kind of moral values are we advocating? What can be undone? What can be done more and done differently? What kind of future would we like to create for our generations to come?
The decisions governments and people take now and in the next few days will probably shape our world for years to come. It will not only shape our health care systems but also other aspects of our society including our economy, politics and culture. Every crisis is a challenge, yet every crisis presents itself with an opportunity. A crisis can be a turning point for society. This pandemic is also a test of our solidarity.
Humanity needs to make a choice now: will we fight together as one, choose a path of solidarity, or trudge down the route of disunity? If we choose disunity, our choice will only deepen the crisis. If we choose solidarity, it will already be a big win against the virus and also against future crises. Let’s understand this first: it’s not humans against humans but us against the virus.