Health workers fighting coronavirus around the world threatened by violence

In Features, Health by Linda Givetash

This piece was featured by NBC News

As Dr. Trupti Katdare and her colleague, Dr, Zakia Sayyed, traced the contacts of a patient who had tested positive for the coronavirus, a mob set upon them, yelling and throwing stones.

“It was very scary,” Katdare said of the incident, which took place April 1 in the Indian city of Indore. “We didn’t understand what was happening. We were going to save their lives. What are they thinking?”

In her terror, Katdare’s thoughts turned to her husband, her two children and the rest of her family, whom she had separated from while staying in a hotel to avoid transmitting the disease.

While doctors and nurses fighting the pandemic have been celebrated around the world, some have become the targets of attacks fueled by fear and misinformation.

In India, at least 35 violent incidents of mobs or riots involving health care workers were recorded in April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit that tracks global violence and unrest. Worldwide, more than 200 such incidents have been documented this year.

The attack came out of nowhere, Katdare said. Her search for the patient’s contacts had been routine until 100 to 200 people descended upon her and her companion.

“They’re saying in Hindi … they don’t want doctors here. ‘Go from here!’ They don’t want to do screenings,” she said. She suspects that misinformation circulating on WhatsApp or other platforms incited fears about her work.

Nearby police rescued her and the other doctor. Beyond a few bruises, she was unscathed.

“Call it ignorance and just hooliganism,” said Dr. Rajan Sharma, national president of the Indian Medical Association. “Attacking anybody, whether doctor or another, is not the right thing to do when we live in a civilized world.”

The Indian Medical Association organization launched a campaign last month to raise awareness of the violence faced by health care professionals and to call on the Indian government to act. Sharma said officials have followed through, increasing fines and jail time for those who attack health care workers.

The rate of attacks has slowed, Sharma said. “The government is rising to the occasion. It is no longer a mute spectator. Ultimately, laws are there for every crime,” he said.

Katdare said she has continued to work in Indore without problems after local authorities explained to residents what the health care workers were doing.

The increase in attacks worldwide is hard to measure, because many cases go unreported, said Larissa Fast, a researcher at the University of Manchester in England who leads a project tracking attacks on health care workers. “We do have numbers, but we know they are not reflective of the true reality.”

The reasons for the attacks vary. Fear is a major player. And rumors from assertions that health care workers are spreading the virus to misinformation about causes or treatments can contribute to violence, Fast said.

Lies have an effect even in the U.K., where people across the country stand on their porches and balconies every Thursday to applaud health care workers for fighting the pandemic. Susan Masters, director of nursing, policy and practice at Britain’s Royal College of Nursing, tweeted in March: “I hear from community nurses that they are being heckled at and verbally abused in the street and called ‘disease spreaders.'”

An ambulance authority in the U.K. launched an online campaign condemning the assaults as #unacceptable.

The agency, the South Western Ambulance Service, said it recorded a 16 percent increase in violence against its paramedics and other health care workers in the last year through April compared with the same period the previous year — although it has not looked specifically at the number of pandemic-related incidents.

Most recently, a 43-year-old man in Stroud, about 100 miles west of London, was sentenced to 20 weeks in jail for threatening a paramedic and then coughing in his face, police said last month.

Attacking health care workers is not new, Fast said. Violence is often directed at health care workers in war to prevent certain groups from getting care.

Last week, gunmen stormed a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has denied responsibility for the attack, and the Islamic State terrorist group has remained silent.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says reports have emerged of incidents not just in conflict zones but also on public transportation and even in the homes of health care workers.

Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses, said in a statement last week: “Stigmatization and violence against nurses and other health workers in some countries is shocking; the only response is zero-tolerance.”

Andrea Melissa Peniche Kantun, 27, a secretary at a public-run hospital in Mérida, Mexico, said she’s worried for her mother, Ligia Esther Kantun, 59 — “the person that I love most” — who is a nurse at the hospital. She was attacked April 8 when she stopped to buy water.

“When she got out of her vehicle … a man in a black car passed by and threw boiling coffee on her back,” Kantun said.

The assailant has not been found.

Although the injuries were minor, Kantun said, her mother is now afraid to wear her uniform outside the hospital.

And she was relatively lucky. Some of the dozens of health care workers who have been attacked in Mexico in recent weeks have had bleach thrown at them. In one case, three female medical workers were found killed, according to the newspaper El Universal.

That prompted Mexico’s National Union of Social Security Workers, which represents health care workers, to call for improved security.

“Nobody, absolutely nobody, should violate the integrity of health workers in any circumstance, and even less in the middle of a health emergency like we are living with COVID-19,” Dr. Arturo Olivares Cerda, secretary general of the union, said in a statement.

Kantun said that if she had the opportunity to speak to the man who injured her mother, she would want to make him and others like him understand the damage they are doing.

“Today the medical and nursing staff are fighting to save us. They are risking their lives and their families to save yours,” she said. “We owe thanks and respect to everyone who is working in a hospital.”