Doctors of India origin at the Covid-19 front lines in UK


The virus is nibbling away at the Big Apple. As New York City becomes a new coronavirus hotspot, the healthcare infrastructure in the area — the envy of many nations — is beginning to creak under the strain of a spurt in infection. “It is almost impossible to manage. None of us have ever seen anything like this before,” says Krishan Kumar, professor of paediatrics and emergency medicine at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“There are patients lying inside the emergency room (ER) and even in the hallway. Many need ventilator support. It is impossible to fit them all in the intensive care unit.”

Kumar, who practises emergency medicine at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and Coney Island Hospital, says Covid-19 has spread quickly through the city. “New York City is a very densely populated urban area. Social distancing is impossible. We are seeing many deaths in the ER.”

While the US has more than a million doctors, it is doctors like Kumar who are the ones leading the fight against Covid-19. The frontline in this war has a few thousand doctors of Indian origin. Some of these people were born in India but migrated in search of the American dream after completing professional education. They still have strong family connections in the country of their birth. And, naturally, they have to share the risks associated with their profession.

Kumar, for example, was born in Kanpur and moved to the US 37 years ago for his residency. He says his three sisters and younger brother in Uttar Pradesh are worried about him and his family.

“My wife, a paediatrician, got infected with Covid-19 at work. She is recovering,” says Kumar, also the president of the New York state chapter of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI). “I have heard many stories of Indian-origin doctors falling sick due to coronavirus. There is not enough protective gear for healthcare workers, especially specialised gear such as filters in masks.”

AAPI, the largest ethnic medical body in the US, claims its members serve every seventh patient in the country. The network is spread across the US as Indian immigrant doctors, unlike American doctors, are willing to work in underserved rural areas as this is a quicker route to citizenship. “The number of Indian and Indian-origin doctors, medical students and residents across America exceed 100,000,” says Navin Shah, cofounder and former president of AAPI. “This is a bad time for all of us. My son is an ER doctor. I am worried about him. He does not meet me as he wants to avoid any risk of transmission, though he has shown no symptoms. The only communication is by telephone and FaceTime.”

One reason for the concern among Indian American doctors is that they mostly belong to the ageing demographic group. “There are many doctors of Indian origin in the New York City area who came to the US in the ’80s and ’90s. Fewer doctors from India have come here in recent years due to stricter visa rules,” says Manas Kaushik, who went to the US 17 years ago for a PhD and is now a consultant doctor in a cluster of hospitals in Maryland.

He says his relatives in India are also worried. “My parents are visiting me and are now stuck here. My wife’s parents are in Pune. They are all in the vulnerable category. We are also hearing about many fellow doctors falling ill after treating Covid-19 patients and some have also died because they were older and more vulnerable,” says Kaushik, adding that no figures are yet available on the deaths with the AAPI community.

Across the Atlantic, the UK is struggling with a shortage of medical professionals to contain the spread of Covid-19. Several retired doctors of Indian origin have joined forces with the country’s National Health Service to give a helping hand. “I retired three years ago but have now joined the NHS back,” says Ramesh Mehta, president of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO). “It is an opportunity to give back to the medical system at this time of crisis across the UK.”

The organisation is also raising with the NHS the issue of shortage of testing facilities and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. “Doctors and nurses are getting infected and dying and that is not good for the healthcare system at this critical time,” Mehta adds.

Like the US, the UK also has a large number of doctors of Indian origin who are at risk, says the national chairman of BAPIO, JS Bamrah. “Over the past few decades, thousands of Indian doctors and nurses have moved to the UK. They serve in remote areas where British doctors refuse to go. Second- and third-generation doctors of Indian origin here have specialised in key areas such as emergency medicine and pulmonary diseases. They are now at the frontline of treating the Covid-19 pandemic in hospitals even in remote areas. But such places don’t have access to good quality protective equipment and testing kits,” says the Manchester-based physician.

Last summer, 500 nurses from Kerala had joined an NHS programme that offered then a safe, ethical and supported route for training and practice. The programme was delayed this year due to the travel restrictions after the pandemic.

“UK has a large number of South Asian nurses. Many from India have risen up the ranks and now have supervisory roles in large hospitals,” says Marimouttou Coumarassamy, a nurse and general manager Arnold Lodge, a psychiatric hospital in Leicester. “This is a critical time for nurses at the frontline of the Covid-19 treatment. We are involved in the various protocols around isolation and distancing of patients and family members to save lives and keep ourselves safe.”

Apart from patients, Coumarassamy is also worried about his mother, a senior citizen, who lives alone in Puducherry, his native place.

Though the UK has a large number of Indian-origin doctors who work in remote areas, the community is still not free from racism, say Bamrah. “Indian-origin doctors work hard but they continue to face racism even during a public health crisis like now.”

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