Tag Archives: health

The Venus Flytrap: Healthcare Workers In A Time Of Health Crisis

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Working From Home, Within A Crisis

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I’ve been working from home since late 2016, and I hope I can offer some suggestions on effectively doing so if you’re new to it.

To begin, some practical tips: never work in bed. It’s terrible for your back. If you don’t have a desk, use a dining table or kitchen counter. If you have enough space so that you can set up an “office”, do so, and don’t eat or watch TV there. Demarcating spaces will also help you demarcate time. You may feel you have a lot less or a lot more time than you did before. Keep daily checklists (personal and professional) as well as weekly and monthly planners. It helps to keep your eye on the big picture when the days merge formlessly. If there’s less work, set manageable growth-oriented tasks: updating your CV, making a vision board, etc. Leisure soothes; don’t beat yourself up.

Working from home is an enormous privilege, as evidenced by the thousands of migrant labourers who walked the Indian highways to reach their villages when this lockdown was announced. People who are or provide the supply chain, sanitation services, home deliveries and medical attention can’t work from home either.

This reality doesn’t nullify the fact that “home”, even if there’s a roof above one’s head and Wi-Fi, can be a highly toxic environment. This is truer than not in the Indian context, bound by patriarchy, where every family has a mountain of “dust” swept under a flimsy carpet. Set private boundaries even if others don’t respect them. For instance, commit to not engaging with anyone whose behaviour sets you off. Bite your tongue, keep up self-healing practices if you have the privacy to, and train your eyes on the long-term. If you realise that you don’t want to live like this permanently, accept that it will be months at least before changing your life becomes viable. Focusing on surviving this, then getting out.

No matter your scenario, mental health is a priority at this time. In a state of uncertainty, we are softer targets than ever. With the anxiety-inducing effects of constantly checking the news, paired with the tentacles of inadequacy that brands/influencers still shoot into our lives, it’s best to be careful about social media usage. Take up journalling: empty your worries into it. There are many guided or prompt-based practices online. Be flexible about how you define productivity. It’s hard to concentrate right now, so if you don’t learn a new language or tackle that to-be-read pile, it’s okay!

When you feel overwhelmed, return to this question: Who do you want to be when all of this is over?

The skills you acquire in this time are not only meant for crises. They are all adaptable into the next normal, post-pandemic. Try to see this period as a beautiful opportunity to inculcate practices for the long-term. These include taking up meditation or exercise, budgeting better, building meaningful connections based on communication (not activity), fairer division or more efficient management of household chores, eating more creatively, developing clearer socio-political ideas, achieving a healthy work-life balance, becoming self-disciplined and much more. Lean into growth, not fear.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 2nd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What The Virus Shows Us

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Imagine if able-bodied people routinely honoured habits taught in kindergarten – like closing the tap while lathering up or brushing, or washing hands after using the bathroom (many have commented on how long the queues at sinks in men’s bathrooms are right now, which tells you…). Imagine if these remarkably simple habits weren’t regarded as crisis-only measures. In fact, we’re already in crisis, all the time. Climate change has long been scheduled to kill us and many of Earth’s other populations, but that’s never taken seriously. Wash your hands, yes, but remember: even if you survive the coronavirus epidemic, the planet is running out of water and summer is around the corner.

Meanwhile, some European airlines, legally required to perform 80% of their allocated routes or lose them to competitors, have been burning fuel on empty planes. This is the kind of excess that misses the point: human life is at stake because of how humans have chosen to live.

This epidemic has begun to show that many of the structures that undergird modern civilisation are deeply flawed. The capitalist model in which few profit while many struggle is profoundly unsustainable. So is any system which deprioritises the environment. Or any way of life that strips us of our humanity, turning us into cogs in wheels, Other-ing peoples, measuring our worth by our productivity (or by any measure of validation that erodes our integrity or joy).

In this state of emergency, universities have switched to online classes, jetsetting meetings have become conference calls and telecommutes have been encouraged for various white collar jobs. People with disabilities, often excluded from opportunities because “there’s no substitute for presence”, have rightly shown indignation at how the world has been quickly reordered now whereas lobbying was ignored. The truth is that more of us could operate like this all the time: saving money, fuel and personal energy while cutting environmental risks and improving our quality of life.

International travel bans reveal starkly how illusory the lure of hashtag wanderlust always was. Just because we can have something doesn’t mean we need it. Especially when, like hand sanitisers today and maybe hospital beds tomorrow, there isn’t enough to go around. We’re also realising how free universal healthcare and paid sick leave are fundamental rights, which too many are deprived of.

We didn’t arrive at pandemic panic without there being long-term decisions at high authoritative levels. Our anger must be used to perform our own civic duties better, demanding greater accountability from those in power who can make structural differences, and activating change on the individual level too.

Experts currently say that most who contract coronavirus will recover, but to maintain high caution to protect the vulnerable (the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.) who may be infected through them. What is a flu to one is death to another. If this doesn’t lend itself to a pithy teaching on responsibility and interconnectivity, what will? If this epidemic doesn’t galvanise those who survive it to insist on radically changing bureaucratic and ethical norms so that they support rather than define what society is, then humanity truly is doomed – and not because of a virus.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 12th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: On Thyroid Disease

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Last year, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition in which the butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that controls the delicate and vital thyroid hormone is underactive. There are several types of thyroid disease, and stress tends to be an underlying cause. I know exactly when I developed my condition, and my personal symptoms included fatigue, anxiety, depression, unexplained weight gain and poor concentration. Thyroid dysfunction is extremely common (studies say everything from ‘1 in 10’ to ‘1 in 3’ Indians have it) and often undiagnosed.

From the very first day that I went on medication, I felt elated. I was in love with life. My face even stopped being puffy.

Sadly, my initial euphoria was probably just a case of being stoned, because it turned out I was on such a high dosage that my imbalance went from hypothyroidism to hyperthyroidism. But this brings me to some things to be cautious about if you decide to take a test – which I strongly recommend that you do, if you have the symptoms, given the prevalence of thyroid conditions.

I’d wanted to bring you some expert perspectives on thyroid disease, but you’ll encounter those anyway. So here are some cautions. The second endocrinologist I consulted told me that my first should have started me on a low dosage then worked up, rather than vice versa. The first had also been disastrous in terms of bedside manner, dismissing me when I asked about side effects. (Yes, you may have side effects – for me, my first period after going on medication gave me harrowing PMS like never before). When my dosage was changed, I asked the third doctor whether to expect problems. Again, I was told No. Untrue: the first two days that my body adjusted to the new dosage were exactly like my pre-diagnosis days. I felt terrible until I acclimatised. A friend who takes different hormone-based medication told me that she has sometimes taken up to two weeks to adjust to changes in dosage levels. Each body is different. Listen to yours, and put your needs first.

Also, certain prejudices that cut across healthcare in India exist in this field as well. When I said I wasn’t married, an entire section of my medical history was simply not addressed. The fourth doctor I met also fixated on making sure I could conceive “after marriage”. Grit your teeth, roll your eyes (and grab the drugs!). But be especially warned about fatphobia. You will be told that you need to lost weight, based on the obsolete BMI index, which was created on a sample base of only adult white European men – i.e. an accidentally racist, sexist and therefore flawed index.

But I share all this because, ultimately, my quality of life since going on medication has improved dramatically. Some people with thyroid disease take up exercise routines, make dietary changes and so on, but I’ve honestly done nothing different except pop a pill every day. I feel so much better, and accomplish and enjoy much more than I was able to. I’d really like for more people to experience the wellbeing I’ve gotten back. Maybe you will too?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 1st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.