New Delhi: Ayat Mir, 18, of Kashmir remembers feeling uneasy when her father Ashraf Mir, a doctor, continued his practice through the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I told Baba not to go to his private clinic. But he told me he had a duty towards his patients,” said Ayat. “He told me, ‘what answer will I give to Allah when I am asked why I didn’t serve my patients?’,” Ayat said.
Ashraf, 48, is one of the dozens of doctors across India who have died on the frontlines of the battle against Covid-19.
According to government figures, a total of 300 healthcare workers have died of Covid-19, including doctors. However, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) claims doctor fatalities alone stand at 568.
The number is massive but the true tragedy is brought home by the stories behind the statistics.
The deaths include starry-eyed beginners looking to make a difference, and those who refused to retire, reluctant to give up helping patients.
There were the doctors from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra who treated their patients for a pittance, and another from West Bengal who left behind a two-year-old son. Yet another doctor from Maharashtra was planning his son’s wedding when he contracted Covid-19 and died, and a Karnataka practitioner got the disease as he visited different districts to spread awareness about precautions.
Dr Ashraf of Pampore was a government doctor but ran a private practice on the side where he treated patients for free.
Their grieving families speak of their struggle to move on — of trying to make peace with the empty chair at the dinner table — but also talk about being inspired by the sacrifice their loved ones made. In the journey ahead, it’s this inspiration that is helping many push through the grief.
Jammu & Kashmir
Dr Ashraf Mir, a senior medical officer at the District Hospital Pulwama, first developed a fever on 16 July. That day, his daughter Ayat said, Ashraf went to the hospital, but isolated himself in the family’s second house upon return.
“Then I also got Covid. Baba used to come to my door and give me medicines even as he was not well himself,” she added.
Ashraf was finally admitted to hospital on 23 July. He passed away on 9 August at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) in Srinagar, where he was admitted later.
He is survived by his wife, who is a government school teacher, and two children.
Besides his job at the district hospital, Ashraf also had a private practice where he treated patients free of cost, said Ayat.
“My baba’s loss is too big for us but we must get by. He would have wanted that for us. Both my brother and I are inspired by his sacrifice, and we wish to follow in his footsteps,” said the 18-year-old aspiring doctor.
According to Dr Atal Dulloo, financial commissioner at the J&K Health and Medical Education Department, a total of five health workers have died of Covid-19 in the union territory.
Dr Santosh Bhandari, 64, died of Covid-19 in June. A resident of Howrah, the doctor contracted the disease during his daily rounds to nearby villages, where he offered his services during the lockdown.
“It started with a fever,” his widow Manisha Bhandari told ThePrint. “Initially, we could not even manage to get a bed for him. It was all confusion,” she added. “Nobody helped us. We did not get an ambulance for taking him to the hospital. Neighbours blocked our house. We were not getting food initially,” she said, alleging that market runs for drinking water became difficult too.
Bhandari had been the sole earning member of the family, as their son lost his job during the lockdown.
Dr Nitish Kumar, 36, was working at West Bengal’s premier cardiology institute — the Kolkata-based private RN Tagore Institute of Cardiac Sciences (RTICS) — when the pandemic struck. He tested positive for Covid in mid-July.
Nitish had no comorbidities, but his condition deteriorated over the next few days. He passed away on 5 August, leaving behind a homemaker wife and a two-year-old son.
In West Bengal, an estimated 36 doctors have died due to coronavirus since April, according to IMA data.
Dr Rajani Jagtap, the chief medical officer at Mumbai’s civic agency-run SVD Savarkar Hospital, lost her husband — a doctor who ran a private clinic — to Covid in the first week of July. Dr Shridhar Jagtap, 60, set up his private practice after retiring two years ago from Mumbai’s Shatabdi Hospital.
Many private doctors shut their dispensaries and clinics after the pandemic struck, but Shridhar continued working.
“He wasn’t the kind of person who liked to stay at home. He was happiest when he was with his patients. He was doing a lot of philanthropic work treating HIV positive patients as well,” Rajani told ThePrint. “He was very gentle and loving. I met him 23 years ago while working with the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation),” she said.
Rajani added that she had never once imagined a life without him. Nor had she ever thought that she wouldn’t be with him when he drew his last breath.
“I tested positive on 23 June. I had symptoms like exhaustion and fever. Four days later, my husband tested positive. He had a lot of comorbidities and his condition deteriorated very fast,” Rajani said.
Shridhar, who was originally from Pune, was admitted to the city’s Sassoon Hospital, while Dr Rajani was kept under home quarantine in Mumbai.
Even as Rajani’s condition improved, her husband’s got worse. He died on 7 July.
“My old mother was living with me and there were two helps too, one of whom tested positive. We were isolated and it was very scary. I was absolutely devastated. I had bouts of crying every day. It felt like I had lost a part of my body,” Rajani said. “My heart went out to my kids. Neither of them got to see their dad, although they were constantly in a video chat with him.”
Since her recovery, Rajani has established a support group, Staying Alive, where members help each other come to terms with the death of loved ones taken away by Covid-19.
In another part of the city, doctor-couple Shubhangi Patil and Hemant Patil were picking out a date for their 27-year-old son Saket’s wedding when the pandemic hit.
Hemant Patil, 58, ran a private clinic where he treated patients for Rs 100. He was also a three-time corporator who represented Hitendra Thakur’s Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, a Maharashtra-based party, in the Vasai-Virar Municipal Corporation.
“He did a lot of social work and people really respected him in Vasai. Every year, on 1 May, he would organise a blood donation camp. He also helped the civic body in setting up isolation centres, quarantine centres for Covid,” Shubhangi said.
He had hypertension and diabetes, but insisted on keeping his clinic open throughout the Covid crisis, she added.
In June, Hemant had to resuscitate a 28-year-old patient by administering CPR — which includes artificial ventilation through mouth-to-mouth or rescue breathing. The patient recovered but tested positive for Covid. On 29 June, Hemant isolated himself in his clinic. That was the last time Shubhangi met her husband.
As his condition became critical, the family shifted him to a hospital. He passed away on 11 July.
“The entire family decided not to break the news to me until the next morning. I was Covid positive and admitted to hospital, so I couldn’t even see him,” Shubhangi said. “I am learning to live alone after 39 years of togetherness, first courtship, and then marriage. He was everything for me.”
With her son’s marriage, the family’s finances and her husband’s medical practice to look after, Shubhangi is unsure of what the future holds. And there’s only Covid to blame.
“It is a strange disease. It doesn’t give a person time. Even a cardiac arrest gives the doctor and the patient some time to respond, but the hypoxia that can happen due to Covid just doesn’t. The infection spreads so quickly one doesn’t realise what’s happening,” she said.
IMA numbers suggest 65 doctors have died of Covid-19 in Maharashtra.
Dr Siddanna K, a 65-year-old private practitioner based in Gulbarga city, was a veteran with over three decades in the field. At the time of his death, he was helming his own private clinic after working at Gurmitkal Government Hospital for 31 years.
He died on 26 July. Speaking to ThePrint, his son-in-law said he had “served people for decades”.
Through the pandemic, Dr Manjunath Gowda, a 53-year-old surgeon from Davangere, travelled to different districts in the state to advise people on the precautions to take against Covid-19.
“He wanted to set an example on how we can upgrade facilities and provide safe treatment for patients in Davanagere,” said a relative, Dr Jayachandra, a practising dental surgeon.
Gowda died on 8 September.
According to IMA data, 64 doctors have died of Covid-19 in Karnataka.
Joginder Chaudhary, 28, a junior doctor at Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Medical Hospital and College, tested positive on 27 June while serving in the Covid ward. Complications caused by the disease killed him on 27 July.
A posthumous profile of the young doctor in the Washington Post features a photograph of him and a colleague volunteering at a medical camp for women. His death in the line of duty came barely a year after he joined the profession.
Joginder was the son of a farmer, who owns two bighas of land in a Madhya Pradesh village and did all he could to put Joginder on the path to a better future. He was reportedly sent to a private school in Rajasthan so he could secure a good education, and his father even sold their family home to fund his medical education.
At the time of his death, Joginder’s income was helping his family get by. His father struggled to pay the bills when Joginder was admitted to Sir Ganga Ram, a private hospital in Delhi, for treatment, but the facility waived his entire fees in recognition of his role as a doctor.
After his death, the Delhi government gave the family Rs 1 crore as compensation.
“We are financially alright for now,” said his father Rajendra. “But we are mentally distraught. We had put in a lot of effort and hard work to help him get to his position.”
While his father is struggling to move on — with a school-going daughter and another son to look after — the death of Joginder was a blow his mother couldn’t recover from. She died a few weeks after him.
Meanwhile, a veteran doctor’s widow is yet learning to navigate her day without her husband. Dr Asheem Gupta, a senior anaesthesiologist at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) Hospital, died in June after serving in the facility’s ICU unit. He was 55.
“Even routine activities like eating food seem dull now,” his wife Dr Nirupama Gupta, a radiologist working in Noida, said.
Their son, who lives in Australia, wants to return to India, but his shaken mother doesn’t want that. “He has been insisting that he will come now but I feel it is safer for him there. I can’t bear the thought of another family member getting Covid-19,” she said.
Dr Gupta was an avid sports fan and the rare anaesthesiologist to share a good rapport with surgeons, a colleague told ThePrint for a profile published after his death. A ward boy at the hospital spoke of his generosity.
“Dr Asheem went out of his way to help people. Be it rich or poor. When many weren’t able to afford ventilators, he had helped them, as he did for two ward boys here,” a ward boy said.
In Delhi, IMA estimates suggest about 14 doctors have died of Covid-19.
The tag of “Rs 2 doctor” for Dr Ismail Hussain, 76, of Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool was a testament to a life lived in benevolence. Over his stint as a doctor, Hussain is believed to have treated lakhs of poor patients for negligible rates. He kept a cardboard box at his nursing home and residence, where patients could pay as much as they wanted as fees.
His reputation drew patients not from Andhra alone, but also from the nearby districts of Telangana and Karnataka. He passed away on 14 April, and was tested positive for Covid-19 a day later.
According to Kalkura Chandrashekhar, Ismail’s close friend of 40 years, the doctor continued seeing patients even when most clinics and hospitals shut over Covid-19 concerns. “Ismail’s death is a great loss to the people of Kurnool,” Chandrashekhar said.
He is one of around 65 doctors who have died of Covid-19 in the state.
Dr Naresh Kumar was serving as the Deputy Medical & Health Officer (DMHO) of the Bhadradri Kothagudem district, when he contracted the virus and passed away in August. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.
After his death, several doctors’ associations rallied to collect funds for his family and raised over Rs 25 lakh. The Telangana government also announced Rs 25 lakh ex-gratia compensation and a gazetted job for his wife.
State health department data suggests there had been 10 doctor fatalities among the over 2,000 healthcare staff tested positive for Covid-19 until August end. The figure has been contested by doctors’ associations.
In March, the central government announced a Rs 50 lakh insurance cover for families of health workers who die of Covid-19 in the line of duty. State governments, including those in West Bengal, Telangana, and Maharashtra, have since followed suit, while some like Andhra Pradesh are yet to announce such a scheme.
According to a senior officer in the Union Health Ministry, so far, the families of 95 healthcare workers have been compensated under the insurance scheme, while 175 applications are pending and 30 are yet to be sent by various states. The sources said this tally of 300 accounts for all the healthcare workers who have died of Covid-19.
However, the IMA, which has collated data from chapters across the country, pegs the number of doctor fatalities at 568.
ThePrint reached Union Health Ministry spokesperson Manisha Verma to ask about the discrepancy through call, text and email, but the query hasn’t been answered.
However, a senior officer, speaking off the record, questioned the credibility of IMA data. “The IMA cannot tell you 500 have died. Can they tell you that they have all died because of Covid and not died because of natural causes after having caught Covid?” the officer said.
‘It’s our duty’
The Covid-19 pandemic presents one of the biggest challenges the medical community has faced in recent years — highly infectious in nature, the disease puts healthcare staff at immense risk even as they pull long hours on duty to deal with the onslaught of patients.
But doctors tending to Covid patients say the risk is a professional hazard, and they can’t overlook their duty.
“We aren’t superhuman, but we are taking risks and doing our jobs,” said Dr Shahid Bharmare, a consulting physician at Mumbai’s Kohinoor Hospital who has been treating Covid patients since March. “Because there is no escape… It’s not about money. It’s a duty we have to do. If I don’t do it, who else will?”
His family, Bharmare added, was “initially reluctant” when he assumed pandemic duty “but they understood that I have to”.
“Now they’ve gotten used to it. So, I take all precautions. But yes, there are a few things I miss as well. I can’t hug my son anymore. I have to stay away from him,” he said. “That risk is always there in the back of my mind. That is there with every Covid-19 warrior. But it’s my responsibility and I can’t stay away from it.”
According to the doctor, most people will contract Covid-19. “You can’t stay away from it. If you’re anyway going to get infected, why not work and do it?”
Pulmonologist Dr Ravi Dosi of Indore’s Sri Aurobindo Institute of Medical Sciences (SAIMS) said he knew two doctors who lost their lives.
“They made the supreme sacrifice for their passion. Medicine is a passion and these passionate doctors gave up everything they had,” he added.
Dosi has been treating Covid-19 patients since the very start of the pandemic.
“I myself became a victim of the Covid-19 virus but I recovered and had the opportunity to keep serving the patients during that time. But I felt the virus inside me, I felt the potency, and the way that the virus engulfs you in its power,” he said. “Being a doctor, you can understand what it does to your body. This is not a good virus. No one is invincible.”
Inputs from Azaan Javaid, Madhuparna Das, Manasi Phadke, Rohini Swamy, Soniya Agrawal, Aneesha Bedi, Rishika Sadam