Five days ago, an elderly gentleman admitted to Kolkata’s Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College, in a serious condition. And then he succumbed to his illness. Till that time, the events matched similar occurrences in most hospitals in the country. There was a scuffle between the patient’s relatives and some of the hospital staff and till that time, there was nothing unprecedented in the incident. It has happened in many hospitals for many reasons despite repeated appeals to the local administration and getting suitable legislation passed to make it a punishable offence.
What therefore began as a ‘routine’ incident has now snowballed into a national issue, a PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court and an online petition on www.change.org has started doing the rounds of Facebook and other social media platforms. But wait, there’s more: interested people have started tweeting to the PMO (@PMOIndia) and Union Home Amit Shah (@AmitShah) demanding that an Ordinance be passed to make assaults on doctors a punishable offence.
At the time of this writing, the Indian Medical Association in Delhi and other places have joined the protest and there are plans for an all-India strike on Monday if by that time the issue is not resolved satisfactorily. And hundreds of senior doctors including teaching faculty all over West Bengal have resigned from service.
Two things have caused the issue to escalate to such an extent. A few hours after the first round of fisticuffs, a mob of nearly 200 people came in trucks, armed with iron rods, bricks and other weapons and launched an attack on the hospital premises. The sheer scale of the assault stunned the hospital staff, and a countering action was never on the cards. A young intern, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, got hit on the head by a brick thrown at random. The brick caused a depressed fracture of the frontal bone of the skull and is believed to have caused such severe damage to the frontal cortex that he may never be able to drive a car. Or do many other things that young people normally do. Another victim is believed to have lost her vision in both eyes.
To make matters worse, the police looked on as mute spectators inside of trying to protect the doctors. And the culprits have been identified, but from the mob of 200, just five have been arrested. If the agitating doctors feel this is just an eye wash, can they be blamed?
State Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee then made the wild and absurd allegation that the agitating doctors were members of the BJP who had refused to treat the patient belonging to a minority community. She has now responded to nationwide criticism and said she would meet with the impoverished parents of the injured young man.
It may however be a case of too little, too late. The young doctor’s life has been ruined beyond repair. Much larger numbers of people are dying because the public hospitals are not functioning properly. Soon the public sympathy for the doctors will evaporate, if this matter is not resolved quickly. Already there are rumblings among the Kolkata public about a strike by doctors being “unethical.”
The ultimate solution is a carrot and stick approach. The larger issue of overburdened hospitals, overworked doctors and nurses, and inadequate facilities at public hospitals will have to be addressed without delay. That would be the carrot. The stick would be legal provisions for stringent punishment for anyone who assaults a doctor, nurse or hospital staffer.