Medics around the world face hostility over virus stigma

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Dr. Dina
Abdel-Salam watched in terror last month as scores of strangers gathered
under the balcony of her aunt’s empty apartment in the Egyptian city of
Ismailia, where she’d temporarily sheltered after leaving her elderly
parents at home to protect them from exposure to the coronavirus.

The crowd called out her name, hurling threats until she dialed the police for help.

“You have moved here to make us sick,” someone shouted.

Abdel-Salam’s ordeal is just one of many in a wave of assaults on doctors, illustrating how public fear and rage can turn against the very people risking their lives to save patients in the pandemic.

While many cities
across the world erupt at sundown with collective cheers to thank
front-line workers treating COVID-19 patients, in Egypt, India, the
Philippines, Mexico and elsewhere, some doctors and nurses have come
under attack, intimidated and treated like pariahs because of their

pandemic, especially in places with limited healthcare infrastructure,
has already subjected doctors to hardships. But medical workers, seen as
possible sources of contagion, face another staggering challenge in
these countries: the stigma associated with the illness.

more than ever, we need to recognize the importance of investing in our
health workforce and take concrete actions that guarantee their
well-being and safety,” Ahmed al-Mandhari, the World Health
Organization’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in a
virtual news conference earlier this week.

in many places, that’s a difficult task as mistrust, fear and
misinformation can have devastating effects. Decades of poor education
and scant government services in some places have created deep
misgivings about the medical profession.

central India, a group of five health workers, dressed in full
protective suits, entered a neighborhood to quarantine contacts of a
confirmed COVID-19 patient when a mob descended, slinging stones and
screaming insults.

people felt that the doctors and nurses will come and take their
blood,” said Laxmi Narayan Sharma, the health union president in Madhya
Pradesh, in central India.

the southern Indian city of Chennai, another stone-throwing mob broke
up a funeral for Simon Hercules, a neurologist who died from COVID-19,
pelting the ambulance carrying his remains and forcing his family and
friends to run for their lives.

In Afghanistan, conspiracy theories undermine the credibility of medical professionals. Nearly 19 years after the U.S.-led coalition defeated the Taliban, many blame Western nations for the country’s deterioration. One commonly shared conspiracy theory is that the virus was allegedly manufactured by the U.S. and China to reduce the world population, said Sayed Massi Noori, a doctor at one of two Kabul hospitals testing for coronavirus.

Last week, several
physicians at the emergency unit of the Afghan Japan Hospital, where
Noori works, were mobbed by 15 family members of a patient who died of
the virus. The doctors had their noses bloodied.

“The relatives believe it is the doctors who killed their family members,” Noori said.

coronavirus hotline in Ouagadougou, the capital of war-torn Burkina
Faso, fields calls about persistent coughs and headaches. But it has
also gotten death threats.

call and say that after they’re finished killing the soldiers in the
north, they’re going to come and kill everyone here,” said Red Cross
volunteer Emmanual Drabo.

workers across the Philippines have been attacked and targeted more
than 100 times since mid-March, resulting in 39 arrests, police Lt. Gen.
Guillermo Eleazar told The Associated Press. In one attack, five men
stopped a nurse heading to work in the Sultan Kudarat province in late
March, throwing liquid bleach into his face and burning his eyes.

President Rodrigo Duterte, long censured for his violent approach to
curbing crime, responded: “I told the police, maybe it’s illegal but
I’ll answer for it. Pour it back on the attackers of doctors and

Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, doctors and nurses say just
venturing out in scrubs invites danger. One city hospital instructed its
workers to shed their uniforms when they clock out, and the government
has assigned National Guard troops to public hospitals.

fears have sparked arrests in Sudan. In Omdurman, across the Nile River
from the capital, Khartoum, a riot erupted at a hospital when rumor
spread it would take COVID-19 patients. Police arrested several people
who tried to attack the building, said hospital director Babaker

In Egypt, even hospital administrators have faced public anger.

Abbas, the vice president of a government hospital in Egypt’s Nile
Delta city of Zagazig, was wearing scrubs when he was jostled and cursed
while waiting in line at an ATM. The head of Egypt’s Doctors’ Union,
Ihab el-Taher, says such incidents are “limited” but still

top of a global shortage of respirators, virus testing, and protective
equipment, increased public hostility has deprived some medical
professionals of basic needs — such as housing and transportation.

India’s capital, New Delhi, doctors and first responders reported being
evicted by their landlords. A nurse in Ethiopia said taxis refuse to
pick up workers coming out of the nation’s main hospital dedicated to
coronavirus patients.

the wave of attacks spurs government efforts to better support medical
personnel and dispel rumors, many doctors draw optimism from growing
public awareness.

police dispersed the mob beneath her balcony in Ismailia, some people
came back to apologize, Abdel-Salam said. In India, two of the doctors
pelted with stones in Madhya Pradesh were cheered when they returned
with gifts of saplings a day later, after health officials had explained
the purpose of their visit.

Yet painful memories linger.

the aborted burial of Dr. Hercules in southern India, one of his
colleagues had to pick shards of glass off his shrouded body. Another
colleague, Pradeep Kumar, gathered two hospital workers and returned
under the cover of night to cover the dug-out grave with dirt.

“We had to literally use our hands,” Kumar said. “This man deserved something better than that.”