It is not possible to train the required human resource in the health sector in the shortest possible time 

Following a spate of attacks on healthcare workers while treating COVID-19 patients in recent times, the government has, in a welcome move, introduced a tough law to deter such incidents in the future.

Beating up healthcare workers and vandalising health facilities can now attract a jail term of upto five years and a fine of upto Rs 500,000. President Bidhya Devi Bhandari on Sunday issued the Ordinance on Security of Health Workers and Health Institutions (First Amendment) on the recommendation of the Council of Ministers. The ordinance has come at a time when the healthcare professionals, including doctors and nurses, are being increasingly manhandled by relatives and friends after a patient dies. In the most recent incident, relatives of a patient who died of the coronavirus thrashed and tried to strangulate a doctor and a nurse at Bheri Hospital in Nepalgunj with the intent of killing them on May 28.

This was the second physical assault on the healthcare workers that the hospital had seen in a fortnight.

Lying close to the Indian border, Nepalgunj is a hotbed of COVID cases, and the hospital is overflowing with patients, who at times succumb to the disease.

Following a sudden rise in the number of similar attacks on healthcare professionals in the country, the Nepal Medical Association had been demanding a law that would guarantee safety and security to them at the workplace. The new law makes attacks and threats against healthcare workers on duty or acts of arson or vandalism of health facilities a punishable crime.

Picketing or padlocking health facilities, organising protest programmes on their premises, preventing service seekers from going to a health institution and insulting employees in the health sector could also carry jail sentences and fines.

With fresh COVID cases in the thousands being added daily, we are already seeing a shortage of health professionals to deal with them. And it is only right that we treat them with respect. While we can buy all the ventilators and oxygen cylinders we need, or add as many beds as needed, we cannot train the required human resource in the health sector in the shortest possible time. In many hospitals, especially those located outside the capital, crucial health equipment is lying idle because there are no technicians to man them. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country last year, the healthcare workers have been working long hours to treat the patients, at times not even without the recommended PPE, putting their health and lives at risk. Thus, in acknowledgment of their hard work in these difficult times, the government has increased their perks in the budget presented for the next fiscal year. The ordinance should also help create a safer environment for the female health workers, who make up a sizeable workforce in the health sector. It is most deplorable to note that on that incident day in Bheri Hospital, three nurses had to jump from the roof of the building to save their lives after being chased by relatives of the deceased and goons. Let us hope the new law will bring order in the health sector and not allow the healthcare workers to be intimidated or health facilities vandalised even after the pandemic ends.

First, curb the virus

Minister for Education, Science and Technology Krishna Gopal Shrestha has directed the public schools to begin the new academic session from June 15 using alternative methods even though the second wave of the virus is still on the rise, and the government has not lifted prohibitory orders in many districts. But, Nepal Teachers' Federation has urged the ministry not to take such a decision in haste.

We have already lost a whole academic year without conducting any in-person classes after the first wave of COVID-19 hit the country last year, leading to the suspension of the Secondary Education Exam last year and this year, too. Health experts have already warned of a third wave of the coronavirus, which would severely affect children below 18 years of age. Even if the public and private schools in the urban centres abide by the ministry's directive, most schools in the rural areas would not be able to begin classes physically. It will further create a digital divide in the country. The schools in the urban areas can run classes online, but not in the rural areas. So, it would be better to wait to reopen the schools until the second wave is brought under control through mass vaccination.

A version of this article appears in the print on June 8, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.