Do not let down our frontline soldiers in COVID-19 fight

The Plague reminds us that we must not forget the sacrifices of the health workers who are battling the deadly pandemic. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, ambulance drivers have put themselves to greater risk of infection to save us. Like soldiers, they also have to face long working hours, stress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma, and physical and psychological violence.

Social distancing, self-isolation, lockdown, quarantine… but the infection continues to pick up steam. As time ticks by, we are flooded with news of surging number of COVID-19 patients, deaths, economic distress or broken healthcare systems. The coronavirus pandemic has, in all sense, put human psyche in its thrall.

Public health authorities all over the world are on their toes and the central banks are announcing stimulus to calm financial markets, and armed forces are building makeshift hospitals.

While hospitals are full with patients and public places empty, people have been alienated from their kith and kin. Meeting them has become nearly impossible! Those who worked across the table till the outbreak of the contagion have been separated. And those who are not quarantined are now paranoid about contracting the virus and do their best to practice cleanliness.

No doubt, the time is not far away when people will not greet each other!

In my isolation as part of working from home following advisory from the authorities, I could find time to revive and lease a new life to my reading habit. Like many other columnist my search, too, centred on epidemics.

A Google search has led me to a number of books from the 1939 edition of Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter to the Severance by Ling Ma published in 2018 which describes a fictional epidemic that taps into anxieties about both pandemics and nostalgia.

What happens to a society when an invisible pathogen spreads through a population, leaving thousands dead and millions quarantined; people confined to their homes; panic and hysteria grip society and much more?

The answer is found in The Plague by Albert Camus who vividly portrays a situation in the Algerian coastal town of Oran in the month of April, to a large extent, like the current account of the coronavirus.

The novel is set in 1940 but is loosely based on a cholera epidemic in 1849, after the French colonisation of Algeria. It begins inconspicuously, with the appearance of a few rats, then works its way virulently through the human population.

Shops, schools, universities are shut, streets are empty. Hospitals struggle to cope with mounting number of patients soar in geometric progression. En masse, the city is quarantined.

Through his characters, Camus examines how people respond – and as part of a collective – to suffering and death. Whether it is a solitary experience or a show of social solidarity, nobody is indifferent.

Amid isolation and quarantine, a local doctor works around the clock to save the cholera victims. Camus writes poetically about this ‘angel of the plague’, who did not think of himself but worked relentlessly for the people.

The Plague reminds us that we must not forget the sacrifices of the health workers who are battling the deadly pandemic. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, ambulance drivers have put themselves to greater risk of infection to save us. Like soldiers, they also have to face long working hours, stress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma, and physical and psychological violence.

The risk to them has been plain from the casualties. Italy has seen the deaths of at least 18 doctors and Spain reported viral infection of more than 3,900 healthcare workers.

During the Ebola outbreak six years ago, the World Health Organization estimated that health workers were between 21 and 32 times more likely to be infected with the virus than people in the general adult population. In West Africa, over 350 healthcare workers died during Ebola.

After recovering from COVID-19, Prince Charles, the 71-year-old Prince of Wales, paid tribute to emergency services workers in a three-minute video and stressed the importance of living with hope. He said it was ‘essential’ that key workers including NHS staff were ‘treated with special consideration’ when finishing their shifts and trying to go shopping.

Let us boost the morale of these virus fighters and care for them.