Orthopaedic surgeon Pradeep Kumar drove the ambulance with a shattered windscreen, ferrying the body of his former colleague and senior neurosurgeon Simon Hercules, towards a cemetery in Chennai. Dr Hercules had died hours ago after battling Covid-19 for two weeks.
It was the second time on Sunday night that Kumar had approached the cemetery to bury Dr Hercules, this time accompanied by only two ward boys from the New Hope hospital where the two doctors had practised together for over six years.
The first time when Kumar, Dr Hercules’s family members and other fellow doctors had driven to the cemetery that evening, around 100 to 150 people armed with stones and sticks had attacked them.
The crowd, angry that the body of a Covid-19 patient had been brought for burial, beat up and injured the ambulance driver and at least two hospital employees and forced the family to take the body back to New Hope. Multiple phone calls to police did not help.
Two hours later, Kumar heard from the police that the crowd had been controlled and he could go back with the body. Two ward boys volunteered and the three, wearing personal protective equipment, drove to the cemetery. Kumar used a single shovel left behind to cover the grave with clay and soil.
“I’m a doctor. I’ve seen death close. But I’ve never buried anyone,” Kumar told The Telegraph on Monday.
Kumar said: “It’s difficult, very difficult. He was a colleague and a friend.”
The Sunday night incident in Chennai has shaken sections of India’s medical community who say doctors and healthcare workers in the country are battling two threats — the coronavirus and an irrational fear or anger that prompts people to attack them.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA), the country’s largest body of doctors, condemned the incident and cautioned that if doctors were to sit at home, the community would suffer.
“If governments do not have the power to stop such incidents, they lose the moral right to govern,” the IMA said. “It is a matter of concern that doctors who have died in their line of duty are treated in such an uncivilised manner.”
No one knows from where Dr Hercules had picked up the infection. “It could have been from a patient who was never diagnosed with the infection or from the community where he lived,” a fellow doctor said.
Chennai is among the nation’s hotspots for Covid-19. The doctor’s daughter is also infected.
Families across the country trying to complete the final rites of Covid-19 patients are also encountering mobs near cemeteries and funeral sites, despite assurances from the health ministry that bodies that are disposed of with proper precautions pose no threat to the public.
“This is the second time this is happening in Chennai — it has happened in other cities too,” Kumar said. “But I don’t blame them. People are now aware of things. Some of them act in ignorance and fear. But I don’t blame them. Until I actually touched the body bag that held Dr Hercules, even I didn’t know how sturdy they would be.”
The Chennai incident has prompted a neurosurgeon in New Delhi to make an appeal to the public, which begins with a modified anonymous poem circulating on the Internet, titled We are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat...
I heard that we are in the same boat, But it’s not like that
We are in the same storm but not in the same boat
Your ship might be shipwrecked, mine may not be
But yes, we are heading to the same shore, while we continue to float
For some, quarantine is about connecting with family, fighting boredom, gossip, and working from home
For others, it’s about working to keep others in quarantine,
For still others, it’s about saving lives, while risking their own,
And worrying about their loved ones at home…
And still yet others, it’s just about survival, struggling with hunger…
Yes, my friends, we may be in the same storm, but we are on different boats.
Do not underestimate the pain of others if you do not feel it
Do not judge or be a judge
We are on different ships to survive, let everyone navigate with love, empathy and responsibility …
Help if you can, but at least do not hurt others
And Yes, we are all working to reach that elusive shore
Dr Simon Hercules was among the latest victim in our war against the Covid-19 pandemic. He was a well-known neurosurgeon, a devout family man, a philanthropist and owner of his own hospital, New Hope hospital in Chennai.
But what was shocking was the manner in which society subsequently treated him.
When his hospital ambulance and his colleagues went to bury him, a group of people attacked the ambulance with sticks, badly damaging it and severely injuring the driver and several workers. Finally, two of his own doctor colleagues went at 2.30am and buried him in secrecy, as if they were committing a crime.
Among the spate of attacks on health workers, this is perhaps one of the worst incidents to happen to a doctor who dedicated his life to serving society.
Such a post might create shock, anger, or frustration and many more things. However, that is not the intent of this post. It is important to understand the root cause of such behaviour from members of the public.
Why are some people attacking doctors or other healthcare workers in these times? Do they not know that the risk of catching infection from a dead body is minimal if proper procedures are followed? Do they not understand that they themselves could be in the same situation tomorrow?
There is a huge communication gap here. Society needs to prepare itself for a period of deaths and tragedies that have befallen the family of Dr Hercules. It needs to recognise the work done by Dr Hercules and countless other doctors and nurses and paramedical staff across the country who expose themselves daily to the risk of the infection merely to help others suffering.
But it is unacceptable that laying the dead to rest should be interfered with by anti-social and illiterate elements of society. This has to be dealt with firmly. Dedicated Covid hearse services would of great benefit. Guidelines for proper disposal of persons succumbing to Covid have been made available by the government. The public should be aware of these guidelines.
And atrocious acts – whether attempts to block funeral rites or attacks on doctors or healthcare workers – need to be condemned and punished. If such unfortunate deaths happen in future, the doctors and healthcare workers must be given the same martyr ship status as soldiers dying in war and full state protection must be provided to give them one of the most fundamental rights of humans: the Right to Die with Dignity.