A lengthy doctors’ strike in New Delhi against staffing shortages at state-run hospitals has crippled health services, creating fears of disaster if the Omicron variant overwhelms medical facilities.
Medical students from across India have joined the protests, which intensified two weeks ago and have grown angrier after police officers were seen beating junior doctors during a march on Monday.
The New Delhi government has expressed concern over a rising number of coronavirus cases and announced new measures, including a nighttime curfew, to slow the spread of the virus. While the country’s overall case count remains low, daily infections in the capital region have risen by more than 300 percent over the past two weeks, according to the Our World in Data Project at the University of Oxford. It is unclear how many of the new cases are of the Omicron variant.
As the doctors’ strike has stretched on, drawing in recent graduates and tens of thousands of the more than 70,000 doctors who work at government medical facilities nationwide, emergency health services have been the worst hit.
Videos from major state-run hospitals in New Delhi have shown patients on stretchers lying unattended outside emergency rooms. Many Indians rely on state medical facilities for care because of the high cost of treatment at private hospitals.
The protests were triggered by delays in placing medical school graduates in jobs at government health facilities, as India’s Supreme Court considers an affirmative action policy aimed at increasing the share of positions reserved for underrepresented communities. Protesting doctors say they are not against the quotas, but want the court to expedite its decision so that graduates can begin their jobs.
During India’s catastrophic coronavirus wave earlier this year, doctors and other medical personnel found themselves short-handed and underfunded as they battled an outbreak that at its height was causing 4,000 deaths a day. Doctors associations say that more 1,500 doctors have died from Covid since the pandemic began.
Protests continued across the country and outside major hospitals in New Delhi on Tuesday, a day after police officers in the capital detained more than 2,500 protesting doctors who were walking toward the residence of India’s health minister.
India’s health ministry said it was saddened over the treatment of doctors during the protest on Monday, but said it could not proceed with job placements while the issue was being heard in the country’s top court.
Dr. Suvrankar Datta, an official for the Federation of All India Medical Association, a doctors’ group that supports the strike, said as coronavirus cases rise in New Delhi and other parts of the country, there will not be enough doctors to handle the crisis.
“We have already communicated to the government so many times that the health care infrastructure is understaffed like never before,” he said. If graduates are not placed in jobs quickly, he added, it creates “a completely catastrophic situation when cases rise.”