I was at home with my family in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur city when military helicopters showered petals over COVID-19 hospitals in May 2020. This was among the several instances in this pandemic when the government as well as the citizens attached heroism and sacrifice to the duty of healthcare workers and projected them as “warriors.” While news channels praised the government for honouring its healthcare workers, my doctor friends—many of whom were working in COVID-19 hospitals in different parts of the country—made acerbic remarks about the act on WhatsApp groups. As the government gained brownie points in their name, these doctors were living the reality behind these spectacular stunts, many being sent to a “war-like scenario” without the required weapons—protective gear. Soon, I experienced the hollowness of this gesture myself.
Around the first week of May, I read in a newspaper report that the state government was looking to recruit doctors for COVID-19 hospitals on a six-month contract. Initially, I restrained myself from applying. Working in the high viral-load zone of a COVID ward meant putting my family members at risk, especially as they have co-morbid ailments. The fledgling status of our healthcare system was another reason for my hindrance. It is possible that other doctors in town shared my concerns—the posts to contain the pandemic were also open to doctors with a bachelor of dental surgery. In the second half of July, I saw in a local newspaper that only 151 doctors had applied for 223 available posts for surgery.
Later, I learnt that COVID-19 doctors are allocated accommodation in three different hotels in Anantapur town, which allayed some of my apprehensions. I walked out of the home to apply for the contract job on 28 August. I meandered in the drab corridors of government buildings, and filled up numerous forms and wrote various letters. I entered into an agreement with the state government to work as a general duty medical officer at the COVID ward of the Super Speciality Hospital, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Government General Hospital. The agreement stated various rules that I had follow, including that I had to “reside at bonafide official headquarters.” The district medical and health office of Anantapur gave me a receipt to reside in a hotel for six months. By my estimate, about fifty doctors from three COVID-19 hospitals in the Anantapur district were staying in the same hotel as me.
I joined work on 29 August, and within three to four days, I was struck with a high fever. A rapid-antigen test confirmed that I had contracted the novel coronavirus. I was admitted in another hospital for a while and later quarantined at home until I tested negative. I was only able to resume work on 26 September.
A certain sense of despair besets one while working in a COVID-19 hospital and seeing the same morbid scenes every day. The situation tends to be so volatile that even a moment of neglect can result in saturation of blood oxygen dropping to dangerous levels. Several COVID patients who turn up at the hospital are depressed as they have already lost a loved one to the virus. Some of them refuse to get treated out of grief. The most incomprehensible times for a doctor are those when patients do not cooperate with the treatment. Their resistance is understandable as they see the same scenes as us and share our despair. I often see an empty bed in the COVID ward and wonder if the patient who used to occupy it has been discharged or shifted to an ICU or is deceased. This keeps me mentally occupied, even in my dreams.
The administration worsened our distress. A couple of days after I resumed work, word spread among my colleagues that an official said that we should vacate our rooms as the government did not have the funds to pay hotel bills. Soon, there were murmurs on WhatsApp groups of doctors in the city about a plan to relocate us. Around the end of September, a staffer at the hotel told me that the government is not paying the bills and the hotel owner is pressurising the staff to make us vacate our rooms. The staff was kind to us throughout the ordeal, but the urgency of these updates from them increased with time. While all these developments increased our collective anxiety, all this could easily be hearsay; no official notification or statement was issued to inform us.
We thought that we will be given some sort of a document asking us to leave our hotels. But we only received vague answers or fits of anger from the authorities. This, despite our fears about house-hunting during the pandemic being obvious—it is difficult to get accommodation in a small city, especially as a COVID doctor. Shifting in a pandemic would be even worse for those facing financial constraints.
For the next couple of weeks of October, we went to meet some high-level administration officials regarding the matter. According to my colleagues who spoke to the officials, all of them gave different responses, ranging from “I don’t know that this is happening, I will look into it” to “Government has no funds to pay for the accommodation of doctors.” It would take days for an official to even refer our complaint to another official. Meanwhile, the hotel’s management continued to pressurise us into vacating the rooms by citing verbal approvals of officials from the same bureaucratic universe.