India toughens law to protect health workers after attacks on doctors

By Sarwar Kashani

New Delhi, Apr 22 (efe-epa).- India on Wednesday approved an ordinance to treat violence against healthcare workers as a non-bailable offense punishable with up to seven years in jail, following complaints about attacks on several medics who are on the frontlines of the battle against the coronavirus outbreak.

“The central government has brought an ordinance to end violence against health workers. It carries imprisonment from six months to seven years if anyone is found guilty,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters in New Delhi.

The minister said police would necessarily complete investigations in such cases in 30 days to prevent any delay in the prosecution of the accused.

“Such offenses have no place in a civilized society,” he said, adding that there were provisions of stringent punishment including a fine of 200,000-500,000 Indian rupees ($2,600 – $6500).

He said if clinics or other properties of medics were damaged, double of the cost would be recovered from the guilty.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the ordinance “manifests our commitment to protect each healthcare worker who is bravely battling COVID-19 on the frontline.”

“It will ensure the safety of our professionals. There can be no compromise on their safety,” Modi tweeted, hours after the government approved the measure in a cabinet meeting that he chaired.

The stringent law, which will be valid for at least six months before parliament meets to approve it, comes after several complaints of such attacks, sparking unease among medics in a country with an under-resourced public healthcare system.

Many doctors and nurses have complained that people had misbehaved with them and attacked them in some cases.

Some medics and their families had also alleged that they were suffering stigma and abuse as their neighbors had ostracized them, fearing that medics carried the virus since they were treating COVID-19 patients.

A viral video showed people pelting stones at two women doctors in a densely populated neighborhood of Indore in central India where they had gone on Mar. 31 to examine a female patient suspected of having coronavirus infection.

Indian Medical Association, an umbrella organization of doctors, had planned silent protests on Wednesday night and Thursday in a stark parallel to Modi’s call for cheering medical workers who are acting as frontline-soldiers in the war against the disease.

On Wednesday night, all doctors and hospitals were to light candles as protest and vigil in a “white alert to the nation.”

The IMA had asked its doctors to observe a “black day” on Thursday by wearing black badges during their work hours.

The association, however, called off the protests after the government passed the law “to protect healthcare service personnel and their living or working premises against violence.”

The body said that the doctors have maintained restraint and acted patiently in the face of provocations, despite instances of violence and abuse.

The IMA also cited instances of deceased doctors being denied funerals because of the coronavirus stigma.

“Obstruction to cremation is the last straw that IMA can bear. If dignity is denied even in death, our patience and restraint lose their value,” it said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the government also approved 150 billion Indian rupees (approximately $2 billion) for an emergency response and preparedness package to fight the outbreak of a disease that has killed some 645 people in India.

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