Indian doctors being evicted from homes over coronavirus fears

Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi and Shaikh Azizur Rahman in Kolkata
Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

Doctors and medical workers in India are being ostracised from communities, evicted from their homes and forced to sleep in hospital bathrooms and on floors over fears they may be carrying coronavirus.

In cases reported across the country, healthcare professionals described the growing stigma they are facing from their neighbours and landlords, resulting in many being refused taxis, barricaded from their own homes, or made homeless.

One doctor who is overseeing a coronavirus rapid response team asked to remain anonymous to avoid trouble with the authorities, described how two fellow medics had requested to stay with him after their landlords had become increasingly hostile to them and asked them to leave their homes.

“Their landlords said that since they are working in hospitals, they will bring the infection home and spread it among others,” he said. “Many doctors around India have already complained about the same.”

He added: “Quite a few doctors have decided to spend the next few days in the restrooms of hospitals because they have lost their apartments or could not get into the apartments because of the hostility from the people of their community.”

As the coronavirus pandemic has begun to fully take hold, with almost 1,000 reported cases, and the entire country of 1.3 billion people has been placed under the world’s largest lockdown, fear has gripped India, particularly because of concerns that population density and poor sanitation and healthcare provision could be disastrous for local transmission of the virus.

But while last Sunday evening, following a call by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, millions took to their balconies and terraces to applaud, bang pots and celebrate the healthcare workers who will be on the frontline of the outbreak, in day to day life doctors, nurses and paramedics said they faced prejudice, ostracisation and eviction over fears they have come into contact with the virus.

One nurse, 38, working at a Kolkata hospital, described how her landlady turned up at her door two days ago and gave her and her two young children 24 hours to get out of the house she had lived in for seven years. The next morning, her landlady returned with two men and demanded the nurse leave immediately, even after it was explained she was not treating any coronavirus patients and had no symptoms.

“She would not listen to me,” said the nurse, who asked not to be named. “She told me, ‘There must be coronavirus patients around you in your hospital. We know that the virus floats in the air and infects everyone around. This is why thousands of people around the world have been infected. You have to leave the apartment.”

The nurse said she and her children had been forced to move in with her mother, who lives in a single-room house in a slum. “Five of us have to huddle in that 10ft by 10ft room now,” she said. “I am working on 12-hour shifts in my hospital. It’s all extremely exhausting. And now I have to find a new place to live – but if people know that I work as a nurse in a big city hospital no one will be willing to rent out an apartment to me.”

Women who work as private ayahs – domestic servants – in hospitals described how they too had been driven out of their homes in the past few days. Kajori Haldar, 48, an ayah at a Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, said neighbours had visited her husband and told him they would not let her return to the community for the next three months because of fears she was carrying coronavirus.

“While I am not on duty, I just find some space to spread out a plastic sheet and take rest here,” said Haldar. “This is my makeshift home now.”

Saraswati Naskar, 40, another ayah who lives in a slum in Kolkata and works in a government hospital, said she had to pretend to her neighbours she now worked in a restaurant. “I know many ayahs and other low-profile hospital workers who have stopped going to their homes and now sleep somewhere inside the hospital campus,” said Naskar.

The problem has become so bad that doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences recently wrote to the government pleading for assistance. “Many doctors are stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” they said in the letter. In both Delhi and West Bengal, the government has now ordered action against anyone threatening to evict health care workers.

Daily life is getting increasingly challenging for anyone associated with the fight against coronavirus. Arghyadeep Ganguly, a junior doctor at Beleghata Infectious Disease hospital in Kolkata, described how seven taxi drivers refused to pick him up when they realised he was a doctor.

“Several of my senior doctors have been asked to vacate their rented rooms and other paying guest accommodations by their landlords who fear doctors will transmit the virus to them,” said Ganguly. “It seems that the people in the country have found yet another reason to ostracise and abuse its medical personnel who are at the frontline of this battle against Covid-19.”