Gods and Outcasts: Ambivalent Attitudes towards Health Workers in India during the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Gautam Liu
The COVID-19 pandemic in India generated a strange phenomenon in how health workers were perceived. On the one hand officials were not tired in proclaiming doctors and nurses as gods, on the other hand health workers were ostracized by large parts of the general population. Paradoxically, it was the very life-saving works of the medical professionals which turned them into outcasts. Making sense of these grossly ambivalent attitudes requires a deeper understanding of the traditional mindset of Indian society.
In the epochal Hindi novel Mailā āṁcal (The Soiled Border, 1954), which entirely plays in a village in Bihar, the author Phanishwarnath Renu (1921–1977) projects the novel’s protagonist, a Western trained physician, in line with his progressive ideology as a modern secular saint in newly independent India. The apotheosis of the doctor is based upon his successful efforts to control a cholera outbreak. Though the villagers were in the beginning very sceptical about his actions, such as disinfecting the well by putting chemicals in it, and therefore accusing him of spreading the disease through this measure, the self-sacrificing manner in which he treats the patients ultimately changes their mind: “ḍāktār ādmī nahīṁ, devtā hai devtā!… kai aur dast se bhare bichāvan par leṭe hue rogī kī sevā karnā, kapṛe dhonā, davā ḍālkar gandagī jalānā ādmī kā kām nahīṁ, devtā hī kar sakte haiṁ.” “The doctor is not a man, but a god, a god! …Taking care of patients lying in their beds filled with vomit and feces, washing their clothes, burning the filth with disinfectants is not the deed of a man, only a god can do this work.”
Now what happened in today’s time during the Coronavirus pandemic? Attacks on healthcare workers in the first phase of the outbreak became so frequent that the Resident Doctor’s Association of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences wrote a letter, dated 16th April 2020, to the Ministry of Home Affairs stating “We, as healthcare professionals, are not as scared of infections as we are of being assaulted and abused by the very community we treat.” The main reason given in the letter for the attacks is the perception that the doctors “are spreading COVID-19”. It seems that apprehensions towards health workers in the wake of infectious disease outbreaks, as we have seen in the Hindi novel of 1954 wherein the doctor was accused of spreading cholera by disinfecting the village well, still persists in considerable parts of North India’s society. Healthcare professionals also had to face ostracization. The Guardian reports: “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.”
To understand this backlash against health workers, let’s recall the above-quoted passage of Mailā āṁcal. The medical protagonist in this rural novel is called a devtā, a god, because of his taking care of cholera patients. So, on the one hand, the doctor ensures maximum hygiene by “burning the filth with disinfectants.” The doctor in this case stands for scrupulous cleanliness and therefore for the preservation of health. On the other hand, he is in constant contact with patients “who lie in their beds filled with vomit and feces.” In traditional Indian society, only the untouchables as a profession come into contact with such impurities. Now, in times of a highly contagious epidemic, it is the people working in the health profession who are more prone to getting infected and are therefore frequently regarded with suspicion.
To counteract this backlash, India’s prime minister Narendra Damodardas Modi appealed in a video conference on March 25th 2020: “saṃkaṭ kī is ghaṛī meṁ aspatāloṃ meṁ safed kapṛoṁ meṁ dikh rahe doctor-nurse īśvar kā hī rūp hai. āj ye hī hameṁ mṛtyu se bacā rahe haiṁ apne jīvan ko khatroṃ meṁ ḍālkar.” “In this moment of crisis, the doctors and nurses you see in hospitals in white clothes are a form of God. Today they only save us from death by putting their own life in danger.” These words were translated in the English media with the following headline: “Those in white coats are like gods.” In August 2020 judges of the Gujarat high court gave the following statement: “In the past we have seen instances of assaults on doctors and other healthcare workers. That is unacceptable. For those who believe in God to be the life giver and life saver, our doctors are the personification of God on earth.” Taking recourse to the apotheosis of health workers is evidently a common practice in India’s public discourse. Maybe reminding the people that healthcare workers are to be respected as gods will not suffice to eradicate general misgivings.
Thus, the divine status of medical professionals remains a very volatile one in today’s India, especially during the outbreak of a contagious disease such as COVID-19.
This article was originally published in the second issue of CATSarena, the newsletter of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS) at Heidelberg University. You can find the newsletter here and subscribe to it here.
 Reethu Ravi, “Abused, Attacked, Beaten: Frontline Workers Are Risking Their Lives Everyday In India”, The Logical Indian, 19 April 2020.
 Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Shaikh Azizur Rahman, “Indian doctors being evicted from homes over coronavirus fears”, The Guardian, 30 March 2020.
 “Mahabharata war took 18 days to conclude, the war against Coronavirus will take 21 days: PM”, Narendra Modi, 25 March 2020.
 “COVID-19: Doctors are personification of Gods on earth, states this High court”, Latest Laws.com, 6 August 2020.
Gautam Liu joined Heidelberg University in 2007 and teaches Hindi. His research focuses on Hindi literature and language ideologies in South Asia.
Citation: Gautam Liu, Gods and Outcasts: Ambivalent Attitudes towards Health Workers in India during the Coronavirus Pandemic, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.01.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31451