NEW DELHI: Thousands of resident doctors at government hospitals across India went on an indefinite strike on Friday to demand that staff numbers be increased amid fear the omicron variant of coronavirus, already detected in the country, may overwhelm medical facilities.
Two men in the southern Indian state of Karnataka have tested positive for the omicron COVID-19 variant, Indian health authorities confirmed on Thursday, after the World Health Organization has warned that the strain, first reported in South Africa, poses a “high infection risk.”
Protesting doctors fear that if a new virus wave hits the country, hospitals may run short of workforce as the government has delayed post graduate student admissions due legal disputes, including over seats reserved for the poor.
“The coming batch is already delayed by one year and resident doctors are already overburdened,” Dr. Atul Krishan, president of the Resident Doctors Association at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi, told Arab News.
“New COVID-19 cases have started coming in, and at this time if there is a shortage of doctors then how are you going to cope with the pandemic when you have the new variant already hitting India,” Krishan said, adding during the protest, all except emergency services have been suspended at most of Delhi’s hospitals.
India has one of the worst doctor-to-patient ratios in the world — 1.34 to 1,000 — and the delay in admitting new ones to the profession, Krishan said, would “severely hamper the fight against the third wave of coronavirus.”
“We know what happened in the second wave when we were not prepared and created havoc. We need to learn from the previous mistakes and strengthen our medical infrastructure.”
The second wave in India, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, killed over 450,000 people between March and May, as its hospitals run out of staff, beds and oxygen to treat the ill.
Dr. Anuj Agarwal of Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital said 10,000 doctors are protesting across the country for tens of thousands of physicians who have yet to be allowed to practice.
“This protest is for some 45,000 doctors who qualified in the post graduate exam last year,” he said, adding that at understaffed hospitals doctors are now working almost 100 hours a week, which is extremely inhuman conditions.”
“It is an alarming situation. In the earlier two waves the health system was not prepared. Now we have a shortage of doctors.”
While the health ministry urged calm on Friday, saying that with the country’s fast pace of vaccination and previous exposure to the delta variant “the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” the Indian Medical Association warned the shortage of doctors would affect coronavirus response.
“At this time when the third wave or a new variant is coming there would be lots of shortage of senior doctors and this will affect our both long-term and short-term preparedness,” the association’s secretary general, Dr. Jayesh Lele, told Arab News.
“Doctors are going through a strenuous and difficult patch,” he said, adding that the vaccination campaign should still be ramped up as many people still need to take their second dose of vaccine.
Around 33 percent of India’s population has been fully vaccinated so far.