Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

India’s covid surge has killed more than 500 doctors and sickened hundreds of others since March, stretching staffs thin

Health-care worker Shama Shaikh examines patients with coronavirus Thursday in an ICU ward at the government-run St. George Hospital in Mumbai. India’s prolonged and devastating wave of coronavirus infections has overwhelmed health resources. (Fariha Farooqui/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

NEW DELHI — The dead include an orthopedic surgeon in his 60s and an obstetrician in his 20s. They include community doctors who examined patients with their first symptoms, and specialists who worked around-the-clock in covid-19 hospital wards, trying to save gravely ill victims.

Across India, hundreds of doctors have died in the new wave of coronavirus infections that has ravaged the country. The Indian Medical Association this week confirmed the covid-related deaths of 515 physicians since March, publishing their names and pictures. The group previously reported that 748 doctors had died because of the virus in 2020.

Hundreds more doctors, nurses and other health workers have become infected and temporarily unable to work since the surge struck in April, creating havoc and exhaustion for overstretched hospital staffs across the country.

“When we required double the manpower, our manpower was cut in half,” said Mayur Rathod, a doctor managing covid treatment at Saroj Hospital in the capital. During the first weeks of the surge, he said, “cases were rising fast and patients were more critical.” He said nearly all 100 doctors and 180 nurses there had been vaccinated, yet many fell sick. “It was a very hard time.”

India’s coronavirus vaccination drive is faltering just when the country needs it most

Other hospitals were similarly overwhelmed by the surge after a long winter lull. At the All India Institute of Medical Science, director Randeep Guleria said patient admissions in April suddenly tripled to nearly 900. “At one point, we had 100 patients lying on the floor waiting for an emergency bed,” he said.

India has recorded 1.3 million new cases in the past week, and even as daily cases have dropped since mid-May, reported deaths still hover near 4,000 per day, a figure that is an undercount.

During the worst of the surge, as hospitals scrambled to find sufficient oxygen supplies and beds, families frantically searched for them, too. Many spent hours on the Internet, tracking tips about available oxygen cylinders. Others ferried sick relatives from one hospital to another, hoping to find a bed.

Even now, staff shortages have left hospitals struggling to fill shifts, keep operations going and maintain staff morale. Some managers have assigned doctors to covid duty who are nearing retirement age; others have asked medical schools to release more postgraduate students for hospital work.

“It’s like a war, with a first and second line of defense,” said Ajay Swaroop, who chairs the ear, nose and throat department at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi. “Before, we said strictly that no one above 60 or with comorbidities will be put on covid duty, but once junior doctors started getting infected, even senior people were drafted.”

Since March, 474 health-care workers at Ganga Ram have been infected, including 148 doctors and 186 nurses. Swaroop described the staff as tired, scared and worried about loved ones getting infected. There’s “no end in sight, but we have to keep encouraging them,” he said.

The fight to contain the virus has been complicated by the emergence of several variants. Indian health officials said this week that one variant, B.1.617, has spread rapidly, including in regions with the highest numbers of new cases. The World Health Organization says that current vaccines can be effective against such variants but that they are transmitted more easily in crowded conditions.

In the capital, officials said more than 100 doctors had died in the surge. Neelam Lekhi, vice president of the Delhi Medical Association, said that many hospital doctors had fallen ill from a combination of stress and long hours, and that more than 50 percent who were not fully vaccinated had become infected.

One of those who died was Anas Mujahid, 26, an obstetrician at a Delhi hospital. On May 8, he collapsed with a fever and headache; by the next morning, he was dead. Delhi’s top appointed official presented his family with $137,000, calling Mujahid a “corona warrior.” His relatives, though, feared he had been exposed to the virus unnecessarily.

“He told us the situation was grim. . . . The doctors were working 12-hour shifts at night,” said his brother Imaduddin Mujahid, 28. “I kept asking him to come home. I feel that doctors would not be losing their lives if the situation had been tackled initially and the virus had not spread so rapidly.”

In India’s devastating coronavirus surge, anger at Modi grows

In other parts of the country, hospital officials described going into crisis mode since April, trying to do more with less and keep staff morale from collapsing. In Tamil Nadu state, officials of Government Rajaji Hospital said one doctor had died and nearly 150 staffers have been infected. On Wednesday, Tamil Nadu reported a record-high rate of 34,000 coronavirus infections in the past week.

“The second wave is more severe than the first,” said Senthil Kerupiah, the hospital’s covid treatment coordinator. “We are seeing a lot of cases, but at times, we are not able to deliver the best possible care.” He said staff members were “scared and upset” when the surge struck. “We are mentally weakened by the duration of the pandemic, and we are not sure when it will be over,” he said.

Rajan Sharma, a former president of the Indian Medical Association, said the “worst-hit” group of doctors is local practitioners, who see patients before they have been diagnosed and end up “paying the price for their neighborhood accessibility.”

Sharma also complained that despite their sacrifices, most of the more than 1,000 doctors who have died of the virus in the past year are not getting the recognition and family support they deserve. He also asserted that their numbers have been undercounted.

Nursing associations reported that while many members had been infected by the virus this month, most recovered quickly. Officials of the largest nurses union in Delhi reported no covid-related deaths among its 6,000 members.

“The situation is under control, and many colleagues who were positive have reported back for duty,” said Fameer C. Karutha, the union’s leader at the All India Institute. He said that up to 70 percent of nurses were infected in both surges but that by spring, the majority had been vaccinated, so their symptoms were milder and only a few required hospital stays.

Nevertheless, he added, “it was the first time any of us had seen a situation peak like this. When colleagues are infected, it gives us mental trauma and increases the strain. If they don’t come to work, the rest of us have to take care of more patients.”

The mystery of the hundreds of bodies found in India’s Ganges river

As the surge persists and health officials plead with the public to get vaccinated and wear masks, some religious figures are touting traditional cures such as drinking cow urine. This week a popular swami named Baba Ramdev, whose cures are endorsed by some politicians in the ruling party, denounced “stupid science” while advertising “coronakits” of herbal remedies for sale.

But two deaths in the city of Hyderabad last week highlighted the dedication of several generations of India’s medical doctors. Avinash Subhedar and his wife, Shobha, both retired general practitioners in their 70s, died within days of each other after contracting the virus. They had remained at home during the surge but agreed to receive patients, exposing themselves to infection.

“I lost both my parents in the same week. It is devastating, but the relief is that they both died,” said their daughter Shweta, 37. “If only one had died, it would have been very difficult for the other.”

Their parents were dying of covid in India. For 12 frantic days, two sisters tried to save them.

In India, the deadliest day for any country since the pandemic began

In an Indian city, obituaries reveal missing coronavirus deaths and untold suffering