Gone Rogue: Why are Indian Patients Fleeing Coronavirus Quarantines?


Gone Rogue: Why are Indian Patients Fleeing Coronavirus Quarantines?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

With the number of confirmed cases having crossed 125, the novel coronavirus Covid-19 has well and truly arrived in India. Large events – even the Indian Premier League – are now in jeopardy, the government has advised private companies to allow employees to work from home, and public spaces like gyms and theatres are downing shutters to prevent the spread of contagion. The spike in cases has also seen a corresponding increase in the number of people seeking testing for Covid-19. This, in turn, has brought to the fore the fractious relationship between Indians and our public health facilities.Now that Covid-19 is dominating the news cycle, most people will have come across stories of patients who refused to comply with instructions given to them at government hospitals, thus possibly furthering the spread of the virus. One such story that went viral over the past couple of days was that of the wife of a Bangalore techie who tested positive for Covid-19 after returning from a trip to Europe.

The story has taken enough twists and turns to fill a screenplay since it first broke. While news outlets first reported that the woman had “fled” quarantine, it later came to light that the woman had indeed refused to be held in the isolation ward, but she had left for her home after speaking to authorities at the hospital. Looking at the photos, it’s difficult to find fault with her decision. Now, Uttar Pradesh police has booked the woman’s father under the Epidemic Act, which could involve jail for up to two years.

The abject conditions in UP hospitals are not exclusive to the state, it’s a problem across India. Photos of the state of the isolation ward at Mumbai’s Kasturba Hospital – rickety beds cramped close together, dirty sinks, and stray cats! – were also doing the rounds on Twitter.

There was also a case from Mangalore, of a patient who returned from Dubai showing symptoms of Covid-19 but “escaped” from the hospital and became the subject of a police search. This type of story, where a patient exhibits symptoms but prefers to seek their own treatment rather than trust the government hospital, is disturbingly common, and emblematic of how little trust Indians have in public healthcare. Yesterday, this phenomenon reached fever pitch (pardon the pun) when 11 patients suspected of having Covid-19 fled from a hospital in Maharashtra. 

Their paranoia over entering an underfunded, overcrowded public health system can have a great human cost, should these people end up infecting others, which in turn will place even more burdens on an already creaking infrastructure. In Italy, a similar situation unfolded, when thousands of citizens attempted to flee the country’s northern region after word leaked of a possible government plan to quarantine the region’s 16 million residents. This quickened the spread of the disease, and Italy is currently the worst-hit country in Europe. There’s a lesson in there for Indians flouting public health guidelines. 

It’s an inconvenient truth that the Covid-19 outbreak has brought us face-to-face with. It’s the reason why working as a doctor in an Indian government hospital can be one of the most thankless jobs in the country. Just last year, there was a nationwide strike of medical professionals to protest the mistreatment and violence they regularly receive at the hands of patients and their relatives. We’re all too happy to sweep it under the rug, only to be reminded of the consequences of a weak public healthcare system at times of crisis.

There have been those who have been pointing out silver linings in this coronavirus cloud, happy that it’s prompting a return to sanskari practises like namaste greetings and vegetarian food. But perhaps it should also be seen as an opportunity to learn, and to improve. The government health facilities would surely benefit. And when hospitals improve, patients recover.