Nepal reported the first death of a medical worker from Covid-19 last week, a 35-year-old health assistant in Mahottari district. Across the country, over 500 healthcare providers including doctors, nurses and lab technicians have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
But instead of crediting them for putting their own lives on the line at the frontlines of the war against the pandemic, heath workers in Nepal are being ostracised, publicly humiliated, and sometimes threatened by landlords and neighbours who fear that they will spread the virus.
Even as they battle community transmission, in many cases it is the community itself that has turned against medical personnel.
Over 20 staff at Bayalpata Hospital in Achham district have tested positive for Covid-19 in the last month, and all are currently isolated in the facility’s staff quarters because landlords have driven them out of their rented rooms in town.
“The government has directed asymptomatic people to isolate themselves at home, but this shows just how difficult this is in reality,” says Bikash Gauchan, a doctor at Bayalpata. “It is harder to fight society than Covid-19.”
Gauchan himself was in isolation after a previous outbreak and tested negative, but on a recent trip to the market to buy grocery, the shopkeeper stopped him from entering just because he worked at the hospital.
At the Patan Academy of Health Sciences, the newly appointed director Rabi Shakya gets resignation letters from staff every day, and the reason cited by everyone of them is because of community harassment, or due to family pressure.
“Health workers are already working in less than ideal conditions, they are not properly equipped, are overworked and have no incentives. Many don’t even have family support,” says Shakya. “They are risking their own health for the public, but when that very public turns against you, it is very painful.”
Shakya says many younger doctors are now rethinking their decision to work in the medical field in Nepal. He adds, “Societal stigma stems from ignorance, and it means we have failed to communicate to the public how the virus is transmitted. Even some health workers themselves are not fully aware.”
Says epidemiologist Mahesh Maskey: “It is ironic that these brave workers are receiving abuse from the very people they are protecting. I am surprised by how the psychology of fear has led us to do this, and I urge everyone to change their mentality.”