An article published in the New England Medicine Journal in April 2020 describes the plight of a nurse whose husband died of cardiac arrest when New York hospitals were met with one of the worst public health emergencies in recent times. While the nurse, a medical professional would have ideally rushed her husband to the hospital, she struggled to take a decision for fear of exposing her spouse to the Covid virus. This incident makes one consider the story of the ‘untold toll,’ which the pandemic is forcing on non-covid patients and medical resources across the world.
When the pandemic hit, the first response of national governments was to impose lockdowns, fund research for the study of the virus and increase hospital intakes for rising coronavirus cases. But most institutions, both governmental and medical, within this rush to curb the coronavirus spread, overlooked other illnesses that had already been affecting people. As a result, all public health funds, research, hospitals and professionals only focused on the potentially deadly virus, while special hospital wards for other diseases were either completely shut down, converted to Covid-19 isolation centres or restricted patients from entering their premises.
A news report published by Al Jazeera in April 2020 covered the impact that Covid-19 had on non-covid cancer patients in the past year, describing how a breast cancer patient was unable to continue treatment and struggled to get her check-ups for fear of getting the virus. Another report from India highlights how cancer patients within the national capital struggled because of postponement of surgery dates owing to pandemic lockdowns. And as one tries to study the scope of this ‘untold toll’ in covid times, one is introduced to articles not just of cancer patients but patients wanting to get a dialysis treatment, women struggling to get abortions and a myriad other such cases.
In April 2020, a report by the Wire analysed how Covid-19 had affected the already struggling public health system in India. As a projective report, the article analysed how patients suffering from cardiac issues, kidney diseases, mental health concerns and other non-covid medical health concerns would be affected by the lockdown. The article further explored how already existing high tuberculosis cases within the country were going to be left untreated in a pandemic world, owing to bad medical health infrastructures within the subcontinent. While there is not enough data available to prove the validity of these reports and the extent to which these predictions were proven correct last year, news reports quoted above give us a glimpse of the situation being close to what this report had predicted. With shutting down of emergency wards, closure of special wards and the conversion of medical centres into quarantine facilities, it is no surprise that the overall health and well-being of non-covid patients underwent a significant blow.
While it is no surprise that these ‘temporary pauses’ in healthcare impacted non-covid patients significantly and put the larger health of the public at risk, this situation also brought to the fore the crevices in public health systems the world over. It was not just Indian cancer patients who struggled to get treated, the situation in the UK and the US were similar. The question that this situation raises is that if the healthcare system could not absorb non-covid patients along with new covid patients in the past, will it be able to do it this time? A year after the previous covid scare, the cases have significantly spiked again, with a much stronger, mutated strain of the virus resurfacing in the world.
The response to this second wave of the virus is yet again lockdown impositions, curfews, shutting down of hospitals, conversion of these spaces into temporary covid wards, thereby imposing a halt on other medical services. while the question remains – can we sustain our healthcare systems in periods of crisis? And can we afford to interrupt other ‘essential’ medical services in times of a pandemic like Coronavirus?
Places like Pune’s Yashwantrao Chavan Memorial Hospital has already become a dedicated covid hospital. The emergency wards in several Uttar Pradesh hospitals have already started shutting down, owing to a spike in Covid-19 cases. Similar reports are expected to be coming from different parts of the country.
Given the data and policy analysis from last year, one is forced to ask whether the response to the current rise in covid-19 cases will result in the same medical conundrum the country and world witnessed in 2020? Or will our past experiences fill the fissures that were made visible by a global health emergency?
Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University.
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