Everyone has a part to play in battling the coronavirus pandemic – but maybe no one has as critical a role as healthcare workers. Yet, India has fallen short of creating conditions in which these professionals can effectively do their job of saving lives.

This was brought into sharp focus in Delhi this week, when 300 doctors threatened to resign en masse. They doctors allege that they have not been paid their salaries for three months. On Wednesday, over 300 doctors staged a sit-in outside Hyderabad’s Gandhi General Hospital after the family of a deceased coronavirus patient allegedly assaulted one of them. Doctor’s blamed the patient’s death on a severe lack of patient carers and complained of being dangerously overworked due to the shortage of healthcare personnel.

Even in normal times, India has abysmal levels of healthcare coverage. According to norms published by the World Health Organisation, there should be a minimum of 44.5 health workers – doctors, nurses and midwives – per 10,000 people. India, however, has only 20.6 health workers per 10,000 people – less than half of the WHO’s minimum recommended standard.

The extreme shortage of personnel is not surprising. India’s spending on health is among the lowest in the world. Total government expenditure – state and Union – amounted to just 1.29% of GDP in 2019-’20. The corresponding figure for China is more than double that at 2.9%.

PPE shortage

To add to this historial lag, state governments as well as the Union administration have done little to enhance the performance of healthcare workers even during the pandemic. Much of India’s initial response to the onset of Covid-19 fund healthcare workers battling the government for basicpersonal protection equipment – without which they put themselves at risk of contracting Covid-19 from the patients they are trying to save. On June 2, a doctor at the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Delhi was served a show-cause notice for alleging that the protection equipment provided to healthcare workers was sub-standard.

To add to this are reports of doctors either not receiving their salaries or having their salaries cut. In stark contrast, countries such as Malaysia and China are actually providing extra payments to doctors, given the burden of work that the pandemic has placed on them.

Hollow symbolism

It isn’t as if the government is unaware of the crucial role doctors and nurses play. On March 22, responding to a call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, many Indians banged pots and pans in order to show their appreciation for healthcare workers. On May 3, the Indian Air Force saluted them by conducting fly pasts and showering petals on hospitals.

This symbolism is important . However, by itself, symbolism will not be enough. Beyond the displays of gratitude, the Indian government must provide material help to healthcare workers.

With coronavirus cases rising, India’s healthcare workers will face increasing pressure in the coming months. The Indian government must do all it can to help.