As a neurosurgeon and the managing doctor of a hospital, Dr. Simon Hercules would have directly or indirectly served thousands of patients. It was probably while in the line of work, treating COVID-19 positive people, that the doctor may have contracted the infection himself. He passed away over the weekend, and was prevented from having a dignified burial by two mobs of residents from the very neighbourhoods that his hospital serves.
On Sunday night, his family and a few colleagues received his body and travelled in an ambulance to a cemetery in Kilpauk. Here, the first mob refused to allow them to proceed. They then went to a cemetery in Anna Nagar, where a second mob unleashed violence on them, pelting stones and logs at the ambulance. A harrowing night ensued for the mourners and the ambulance staff, including sustaining severe injuries. It culminated in a colleague of the late doctor having to dig the ground with his bare hands in order to complete the burial, under police protection.
This was not the first such Indian instance, however. In Meghalaya, a deceased doctor’s family had to wait 36 hours before a burial plot was available to them, due to a mob of hundreds preventing the rites. The cremation of another doctor in Chennai, originally from Andhra Pradesh, was also initially stopped by a mob. All such gatherings were formed in direct violation of lockdown rules.
Medical workers have also faced sudden evictions, ostracisation from their neighbours, and other forms of discrimination during this pandemic. A report in The Guardian on March 20th detailed how a Kolkata nurse and her children were thrown out of their apartment without notice, and how janitorial staff and others had been sleeping on plastic sheets on hospital campuses, prevented by neighbours from returning home.
Just two days after that report was published, millions of Indians assembled with or without social distancing to bang pots and pans together, supposedly to show their appreciation for healthcare workers. As many healthcare workers themselves, both in India and abroad, have said: all such gestures are meaningless if not accompanied by demanding accountability from authorities, especially for increasing production and availability of PPE kits, as well as for increasing testing and other measures. Dr. Pradeep Kumar, who performed the final rites for Dr. Solomon Hercules, spoke to India Today about how misinformation spread to the public (about how the virus is transmitted, and falsities such as that lighting candles would dispel it) was behind the shocking breakdown of civil behaviour that night.
It is a mistake to aggrandize any role and assign noble qualities to it by default. But workers in the healthcare sector – not only doctors, but everyone who works in a medical environment – are at risk in this pandemic precisely because they are the ones fighting it directly. Everyone deserves basic dignity: the medical officer and the migrant labour, both. Middle-class India is revealing its vilest face through this pandemic, ungrateful to the vital people who administer the medications, clean the bedpans, build the cities, harvest the fields. How do we expect to survive without them? And do their own lives mean nought?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.