Of late, the country has been outraged by life-threatening attacks, in some parts of India, on doctors, nurses and healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. Most recently, a doctor in Tamil Nadu did not get a dignified burial after losing life after contracting the infection from a corona patient being treated by him. In Gujarat, a man who clapped in response to the call of Prime Minister to express solidarity with medical personnel, intimidated a lady doctor in his neighbourhood, and asked her to keep away from her apartment just because she was working in a hospital where COVID patients were being treated.
Such ill-treatment of doctors and healthcare staff is compounding their woes caused by alarming shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), N95 masks and other materials to safeguard them from this highly infectious virus.
In such a disheartening atmosphere, came Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s historic announcement April 21, that doctors and healthcare professionals of both public and private medical facilities in the state, who lose their lives in this fights against COVID-19, would be hailed as martyrs and would get a State funeral with full State honours. The pronouncement, the first of its kind in our country, has boosted the spirit of doctors and healthcare staff in Odisha, where there has not been a single instance of assault on them.
Earlier, too, Patnaik had released three months’ advance pay to doctors and healthcare staff deployed by the government to treat COVID-19 patients.
Patnaik also announced that the deceased doctors and healthcare personnel would get an ex-gratia amount of Rs. 50 lakh each in convergence with the initiative of the Union government in this regard, and families of those government personnel (medical and others) would continue to get full salary till the date of their retirement.
In a video message, the Odisha Chief Minister reminded people that doctors and healthcare professionals were in the forefront of the tough battle against COVID 19, putting their life at stake. He, therefore, warned that those who harass, discriminate, ostracise and stigmatise doctors and healthcare workers would be detained under the stringent National Security Act and dealt with accordingly.
Patnaik also announced awards to honour doctors and healthcare personnel in recognition of their service and sacrifice, which would be conferred on them on national days.
Odisha, so far, has only 83 COVID positive cases, out which 32 have recovered and 30 separate COVID hospitals have been set up in a record time in several districts with facilities for 4,976 beds.
The Odisha CM’s latest announcement should be seen in the context of his earlier demand before the Prime Minister that protective gear, critical care equipment and masks must be made available in large quantities for healthcare personnel.
Patnaik’s statesmanlike gesture assumes significance at a time when the coronavirus has spread at an alarming pace across the globe, infected millions of people, claimed lives of not only hundreds of thousands people but also of doctors and healthcare professionals. In making such as announcement, Patnaik has set an example before the country by sensitising people to accord the highest honour to medical personnel, be they doctors, nursing assistants and other hospital attendants.
Conventionally, martyrdom is the highest honour aspired by any military personnel engaged in defending the country. In a COVID-ridden world and the post COVID architecture of human society, the idea of security and patriotism is increasingly spelt out from the point of view of health and well being. Patnaik's pronouncement, therefore, constitutes in some sense a demilitarisation of patriotism. In this context, doctors, nurses and hospital staff, who are relentlessly fighting against coronavirus are equated with patriots, warriors and guardians of the safety, security and well being of human beings.
Dr. Kotnis Attained Martyrdom Serving Wounded Chinese People
In India, we have the example of Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis from Maharashtra, who went to China on the call of Jawaharlal Nehru, as part of medical mission to that country which had become a victim of Japanese invasion in 1938. Dr. Kotnis tirelessly served the people of China, who at that time also had to confront the infectious plague outbreak. His services were so exemplary that he is still admired by the Chinese people and authorities. Dr Kotnis married a Chinese lady who was working with him as a nurse.
While rendering medical services in the frontline, Dr Kotnis passed away in China and later the Chinese authorities built his statue that occupies a pride of place among the martyrs of China and merits reverential attention from people and powers that be of that country. Acclaimed filmmaker, late V Shantaram, also made a film "Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani" and immortalised his legacy of service for the cause of saving human lives from disease and disaster.
Dr Kotnis belonged to the 20th century world. Now in 21st century India, Patnaik’s decision to confer the status of martyrs to doctors and healthcare professionals laying down their lives in response to the call of duty to serve the COVID patients, is yet another example of the real meaning of patriotism and martyrdom in the context of health and human security, which is more expansive than military security.
Patriotism in terms of health and wellness post-COVID
Mark Lawrence Schrad, associate professor of political science at Villanova University, insightfully wrote:
"America has long equated patriotism with the armed forces. But you can't shoot a virus. Those on the frontlines against coronavirus are not conscripts, mercenaries or enlisted men; they are our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, care givers....Like Li Wenliang and the doctors of Wuhan, many are suddenly saddled with unfathomable tasks, compounded by an increase risk of contamination and death they are not signed up for. When all is said and done, perhaps we will recognise their sacrifices as true patriotism, saluting our doctors, and nurses, genuflecting and saying, "Thank you for your service"", as we now do for military veterans. We will give them guaranteed health benefits, corporate discounts, and build statues and holidays for this new class of people who sacrifice their health and their lives for ours. Perhaps, too, we will finally start to understand patriotism more as cultivating the health of your community, rather than blowing up someone else's community. May be the demilitarisation of American patriotism and love of community will be one of the benefits to come out of this awful mess".
Hence, "demilitarisation of patriotism" should pave the way for understanding it from the perspective of health and human security. That is the need of the hour. China officially honoured doctors who died of COVID 19 while treating patients as martyrs. Iran has declared that it would recognise doctors and nurses who died combating the new coronavirus as “martyrs” like slain soldiers. Patnaik's pronouncements that doctors and health professionals laying down their lives while treating COVID patients would be honoured as martyrs and would get State funeral upholds this very larger meaning of security and patriotism, which goes beyond military dimensions.
In fact, Patnaik’s announcement outweighs the Prime Minister’s call for clapping for healthcare personnel, which was more a symbolic act.
Replication of Patnaik's measures by the Prime Minister and other Chief Ministers will go a long way in boosting the spirit of our doctors and healthcare personnel in their relentless battle for attaining victory over coronavirus.
The writer served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to Former President of India, late K R Narayanan. The views are