The news of an ambulance driver sexually assaulting a female COVID-19 patient in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district has shocked people for many reasons. After the arrest, it has emerged that the man has been previously accused of attempt to murder in 2019. This raises two questions: How could a man with criminal background be hired as an ambulance driver? Why wasn’t a nurse or an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) present with the patient in the ambulance, as is the practice while taking COVID-19 patients to hospitals?
The accused, Noufal, was an ambulance driver with the Kanivu 108, which is a free ambulance service network as part of the comprehensive trauma care system in government hospitals.
A source from the hiring agency told TNM that a recruitment drive was conducted in every district to hire ambulance drivers when Kanivu 108 was launched in 2019. “Usually, there would be a written test, driving test and an interview as part of the recruitment process. The candidate should also submit a medical certificate and Police Clearance Certificate (PCC). If they are unable to submit it at the time of application, they would be required to do so within a certain number of days of joining duty,” the source explained.
The hiring agency takes a written statement from the person stating the same before hiring him/her.
According to a press release by the Health Department, the accused had submitted a written statement along with the copy of the application for PCC that he had submitted at the Kayamakulam police station. “The accused was allowed to join based on his prior experience as a 108 ambulance driver in Alappuzha from 2014 to 2015 and the guarantee that he will submit the police clearance certificate,” the press release said.
On February 25, the company issued a circular stating that medical and police certificates are mandatory and that action will be taken against those failing to submit the same.
Although it is not clear when the man joined duty, Noufal has not submitted the police clearance certificate so far. According to officials, no action was taken against him considering the COVID-19 situation.
“About 95% of the applicants produced the police clearance certificate. Since the COVID-19 situation was bad in the state, we did not dismiss the remaining 5% immediately. The accused falls in that 5% of candidates. The man wrote in his application that he had submitted an application to the police station for PCC,” the official source said.
“Due to COVID-19, the hiring agency decided not to take action against those who could not submit the certificates. It was during this period that the unfortunate incident took place,” the Health Department added.
Company officials are also investigating why a nurse or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) was not present in the ambulance to accompany the driver.
"Ambulances run day and night now because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. Sometimes, the accompanying EMT takes a break from one trip due to exhaustion. Sometimes certain hospitals might try to save the use of one PPE (personal protective equipment) kit by deploying only one person on duty," the source added.
Of the 1,300 ambulance staff in the state, nearly 700 are ambulance drivers. Among the staff, there are around 200 nurses.
Outrage on social media
Meanwhile, people took to social media to express outrage over the rape.
Posting an image of the man, Facebook user Dona Josy Thomson wrote: "This is the a****** ambulance driver who sexually assaulted a COVID-19 patient in Aranmula on the way to the hospital… Without even caring about getting infected, seeing only the body of the woman in front of him.”
She sarcastically added, “Keep saying that Malayalis are not sexually frustrated and that women should be submissive. Do not forget that these incidents are not new in Kerala. And this jerk was supposed to be saving lives!"
Teacher, writer and cultural activist Sangeetha Jaya expressed shock over the crime. "What women empowerment should we tell our girls about? What is the solution to suppressed sexuality that leads to criminality? I am too shocked to react."