Medical workers subjected to ABUSE by public, accused of “spreading” coronavirus
04/09/2020 // Michael Alexander // Views

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its rampage, health workers around the world have become the target of a new threat: the general hostility and abuse from the public.

Joaquin Sapul Jr., a nurse who works for The Medical City in Ilo-ilo, Philippines as chief patient services officer, knows this situation all too well.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Sapul said several nurses from their hospital have been kicked out from their apartments by their landlords – all because of the fear that they could bring the virus into their residences.

"At least six nurses were messaging and calling me, crying. Their landlords were evicting them. Some were being prevented from leaving their homes by their village captains," Sapul said, noting that the acts being perpetrated against them stem from confusion and general hysteria regarding the nature of the ongoing pandemic.

"We healthcare workers have always enjoyed the trust of our community. I underestimated how hysteria could make them turn on us so quickly," Sapul added.

A similar scenario is unfolding in India, where, Kolkata-based psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram said "hypocritical" landlords would applaud health workers such as doctors and nurses one day, then evicting them the next.

According to Ram, this is a manifestation of "poor health awareness" in the country, as well as Indians’ cultural tendency to mistrust one another, adding that similar discriminatory practices have been lobbed at leprosy, tuberculosis and HIV-Aids patients in the past.

Discrimination against doctors and other medical workers in India is still ongoing, with a doctors’ association already noting the rising number of now-homeless doctors within the country.


"Many doctors are now stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country," doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences said in a statement appealing for government help after health workers were forced out of their homes by panicked landlords.

This was confirmed by Indian health minister Harsh Vardhan, who, in a post on Twitter, said that he is "deeply anguished" by the incidents.

While most of the incidents reported so far regarding discrimination have been limited to evictions and the like, other instances were more violent.

In Abidjan, the capital of the African nation of Ivory Coast, villagers dismantled a half-built coronavirus testing center out of fear that it would "kill" them.

In an interview with Reuters, police said the hostility arose from a misunderstanding wherein the city’s residents thought that patients with COVID-19 would be treated at the center.

"There’s been a lack of communication. It’s more like a testing center for residents," Charlemagne Bleu, a spokesman for the police, said.

Authorities arrested four residents during the incident.

A string of similar incidents have been reported in the Philippines: A nurse in Cebu City was doused with chlorine solution while on his way home from a hospital; a health worker in Sultan Kudarat, a city located in the country’s southern island of Mindanao, was splashed with bleach as he crossed the street on his way to the hospital where he worked. (Related: Doctors, nurses report dire shortage of protective gear - it's like going to war with no weapons.)

The Philippines' health department has denounced the issue and declared that such actions will not be tolerated.

The attacks came just as the country recorded a spike in its number of COVID-19 cases. The Southeast Asian nation now has 3,870 confirmed infections and 182 deaths. As per official records, 21 of the deceased in the Philippines are doctors.

Nurses and other health care workers from Mexico have also reported experiencing the same treatment.

According to the Inter-institutional Commission of Nurses of the State of Jalisco (CIEJ), several health care workers have been subjected to physical and verbal attacks – both on the streets and on public transportation – by citizens afraid of getting infected by the coronavirus.

"We know that we are all at risk, but violence should never be tolerated, even if we are frightened by the spread of the coronavirus," the Commission said in a written statement addressed to hospital directors in the region, as well as to the state governor Enrique Alfaro.

According to Edith Mujica Chávez, executive president of the commission, their commission previously received a particularly distressing report stating that one of their colleagues was forcibly removed from a bus before being doused with water mixed with chlorine.

Chávez said the incident happened in the Oblatos neighborhood, where the first coronavirus-related death in the state was recorded.

As a response to the attacks, the commission has advised medical workers in the region to wear civilian clothing when outside of their workplaces to avoid possible harassment.

This is the same advice hospital administrators gave to medical workers across New South Wales in Australia, in the wake of several incidents of health workers being assaulted and even spat on by members of the public.

As reported by ABC, one incident involved an intensive care nurse at Royal North Shore Hospital who was assaulted after boarding a train while wearing her scrubs. Other instances involved several nurses who were refused service at supermarkets and cafes or were subjected to verbal abuse by gas station attendants for walking around in their uniforms.

According to the nurses, the incidents happened because the assailants believed the workers were spreading coronavirus.

New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard has lambasted the incidents, calling the behavior of those who abused medical professionals "unacceptable."

"It's not Australian, it's not the way Aussies behave," Hazzard said.

In a report, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that medical workers and healthcare providers – especially those who are manning the frontlines against COVID-19 – are not only at risk of infection and fatigue, but also of psychological distress, stigma, and physical and psychological violence.

As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of 88,455 people and infected 1,518,000 others worldwide.

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