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As coronavirus fears grow, doctors and nurses face abuse, attacks

People in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, tore down a coronavirus testing center under construction in their neighborhood April 6 out of fear it would expose them. (Video: Reuters)

It’s hard enough being a doctor in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But Sanjibani Panigrahi, a psychiatrist at a government hospital in western India, now finds her own neighbors turning against her.

“We are sure you have corona,” one woman recently shrieked at her, she says, — part of a torrent of abuse from residents at her apartment complex. “We will not allow you in the building.”

In some cities, health-care workers are earning standing ovations for the long, life-risking hours they’re putting in to battle the coronavirus. But in others, they’re facing discrimination and even attacks.

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In Mexico, Colombia, India, the Philippines, Australia and other countries, people terrified by the highly infectious virus are lashing out at medical professionals — kicking them off buses, evicting them from apartments, even dousing them with water mixed with chlorine.

The culprits are a minority of the population. But Mexican state authorities are so worried that they’ve arranged special buses for nurses. In parts of Australia, hospitals are urging nurses not to wear their uniforms in public, to avoid attacks.

Last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered police to protect health workers after reports of assaults — including one in which someone splashed bleach in a hospital employee’s face.

The hostility has been a shock to medical professionals already under immense strain. Scores of doctors and nurses around the world have died after being infected with the coronavirus. In many countries, health workers are struggling with a lack of basic protective equipment, such as masks.

“I understand people are afraid, but abusing doctors is not okay,” Panigrahi said by phone from the industrial town of Surat. “We are at risk more than them.”

In her case, the harassment ended after local police and politicians intervened, Panigrahi said. Her neighbors apologized, saying they had been frightened by news about the virus.

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But other health professionals continue to be stigmatized.

A doctors’ association in Delhi wrote to the central government that health workers were being evicted by landlords over their work. “Many doctors are now stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” the association said.

“DEEPLY ANGUISHED,” the country’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, tweeted in response to such reports. “All precautions are being taken by doctors & staff on #COVID2019 duty to ensure they’re not carriers of infection in any way.”

Authorities say the attacks reflect misunderstanding of the virus and the strict hygiene maintained by hospitals to limit its spread.

In one jarring incident, a man allegedly shot an ambulance driver last week in Quezon province in the Philippines. The assailant was worried the vehicle was going to enter a subdivision and spread the virus, the hospital said.

The Peter Paul Medical Center of Candelaria said its ambulance driver was transporting hospital personnel, not coronavirus patients. “Moreover, proper cleaning and disinfection of the vehicle is done on a regular basis,” the hospital said.

The driver survived, with a finger wound.

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Scattered attacks have occurred in many parts of the world, including the United States. A nurse in Chicago told the local ABC7 TV channel last week that she had been punched in the eye on a public bus by a man who accused her of spreading the virus.

“Going to and from work in my scrubs, I often watch people take two steps back away from me” — and not just because of social distancing, she told the station, speaking on the condition that she not be identified. “I think the concern is that any health care provider is contagious themselves.”

Authorities worry such fears could erupt in violence, not just against health professionals but medical facilities.

Protesters in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, tried to destroy a coronavirus testing center under construction on Monday. Videos on social media showed people ripping planks of wood off the structure as police fired tear gas canisters.

Some told reporters they did not want the facility so close to their homes. “They want to kill us,” one told Reuters.

Health Ministry officials said the center was not even designed to treat patients with covid-19, the disease the virus causes, but rather to test for the virus.

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Medical professionals worry the attacks and insults could demoralize health workers just when they’re most needed.

“If we continue to harass them, more of them will quit their jobs, and our health-care system would be in danger,” said Reigner Antiquera, president of the Alliance of Young Nurse Leaders and Advocates in the Philippines.

In Mexico, suspicion of nurses is so widespread that many have stopped going to work in their uniforms.

Maria Luisa Castillo, a 30-year nursing veteran, has worn her white uniform proudly. But on a recent afternoon, after working the daytime shift at Guadalajara’s Civil Hospital, it proved a liability. She was standing alone at a bus stop. A bus approached, she tried to wave it down, and it zoomed on by — to the next block, where it stopped and deposited passengers.

“It was clear they didn’t want to pick me up,” the 51-year-old nurse said.

She was among at least a half-dozen nurses in western Jalisco state who have filed complaints of discrimination or other harassment in recent weeks. In response, the state government is providing free transportation for nurses, along with face masks.

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Further north, in Durango state, officials summoned bus companies to explain that there was no health risk in transporting health workers.

“We see how in Italy a nurse leaves her home to go to work and people applaud,” said Fernando Ríos Quiñones, a spokesman for the state health department. “But here we see these sad situations.”

He said special buses were now dropping employees off at hospitals, and taxi drivers were offering 30 percent discounts to doctors and nurses.

Sandra Alemán has heard the advice: Don’t wear your uniform in public. But last Friday, while driving to a public hospital in the city of San Luis Potosí for the night shift, the 32-year-old nurse stopped at a convenience store for a cup of coffee. As she was leaving, she said, some children hurled juice and soda at her, yelling, “Covid! Covid!”

When Alemán scolded the children, she said, their mother slapped her in the face. As she attempted to run away, she said, she fell and fractured a finger.

She’s now feeling something she never experienced in her nine years on the job: fear of going out in public in her uniform. Nonetheless, she said, she plans to return to her job.

“When I recover, I’m going back,” she said.

Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Masih reported from New Delhi. Cabato reported from Manila. Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and Danielle Paquette in Washington contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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