India has lost 270 doctors to its devastating second wave of the Covid pandemic, with as many as 50 of these deaths recorded in just a single day on Sunday, according to new data issued by the country’s largest association of doctors.
Speaking to The Independent, Indian Medical Association (IMA) president Dr JA Jayalal said a worryingly high proportion of the country’s doctors and medical staff are still not fully vaccinated.
Of the doctors who died since January, about 97 per cent were unvaccinated, while three per cent had received their jabs.
“Due to various reasons, only 66 per cent of India’s healthcare workers have been fully vaccinated. It is unfortunate India is losing its soldiers who are waging the war with the virus on the frontline, and the government should treat them as martyrs,” Dr Jayalal said.
The second wave has seen India become the epicentre of the global Covid crisis, pushing the country’s total number of infections above 25 million and its official death toll over 278,000 – a figure considered to be a huge undercount by experts. Health infrastructure has crumbled under the weight of the soaring caseload, with even major cities like Delhi and Mumbai suffering critical shortages of oxygen, drugs, basic medical supplies and indeed medical staff.
Dr Jayalal said even the recorded deaths of 270 doctors was itself likely to not represent the real picture, and that the actual number could be 20 to 30 per cent higher.
“The data we have is from our IMA’s branches across India, but we could be missing 20 to 30 per cent of doctors who might have succumbed to Covid but might not have been reported to us,” he said.
As many as 50 deaths of Covid patients were recorded on Sunday alone. The list of deceased doctors includes reputed cardiologist KK Aggarwal, 62, who died of Covid on Monday. He was a former president of the IMA and a recipient of the Padma Shri award, the fourth-highest civilian honour in India.
The death of medical professionals comes as India already suffers a shortage of doctors, nurses, and other health staff amid the raging pandemic. India has about 1.2 million doctors for its population of 1.3 billion. The number of doctors specifically designated for Covid treatment is far less and remains unknown.
According to the 2018 National Health Profile, in Delhi – rated the best city to live in in India for health outcomes – there is one public doctor for every 2,203 people.
The Indian government made a push to recognise the efforts of frontline health workers during the first wave last year, when 748 doctors died as scientists around the world pushed for a vaccine breakthrough.
Flower petals were showered on health workers by Air Force helicopters across India last year in a show of gratitude for their efforts and to boost morale.
Yet despite being prioritised for inoculations, five months into India’s vaccination drive only two thirds of India’s healthcare worker population has been fully vaccinated.
Dr Jayalal’s association, which represents 350,000 medical professionals, said it is more necessary than ever before to protect and appreciate doctors who are stretched thin by the huge number of Covid patients overrunning hospitals.
Staff shortages have been exacerbated by the fact that final year exams for medical students were delayed by the pandemic, meaning a whole generation of new doctors are yet to enter employment.
“There is a shortage of doctors so they have to work extra hours,” Dr Jayalal said. “They are getting frequently infected as they are dealing with the virus up close.
“We are talking to the government to ensure affordable and adequate care to those who are infected. The government should appropriately recognise them as the martyrs and give adequate support to help their families,” he added.
The youngest to die among the 270 was Anas Mujahid, 26, a junior resident doctor at Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital. His death shocked his family and colleagues as he succumbed to the virus within hours of testing positive.
His friend and colleague Dr Aamir Sohail said Mujahid was not vaccinated at the time, but that he had been planning to get the jab.
Dr Jayalal said that while their data focussed on the number of deaths, many more medical professionals are also suffering the mental strain of seeing so many of their patients dying from the virus. “It burdens us emotionally and we are burnt out mentally, both due to emotional trauma and [long] working hours,” he said.