By Dr Neeraj Nischal
The COVID-19 pandemic was like a bolt from the blue, pushing the global healthcare system to the limits. Even developed countries with the best healthcare infrastructure could not cope with the first wave of this pandemic. The lack of infrastructure and healthcare workers had never been more apparent till date. This has also put the already stressed and meagre healthcare workforce under a lot of strain, both physical and mental. It is mostly due to the resilience, compassion and commitment of the frontline workers towards their duty that we have been able to fight with this pandemic.
In fact, India has come out to be a global leader in COVID-19 response and it would be unfair to not give the credit for this to the millions of citizens who have complied with government issued advisories ( including a complete lockdown) at all times.
COVID-19. The name strikes a special chord with each one of us. It has been a scientific enigma, a medical crisis, an economic meltdown, and now, a way of life. I now see the past year as a series of stages (not unlike the stages of grief). This is my story of COVID-19, having treated and been treated.
Phase one: Apprehension. Though this pandemic has been one to remember, this is not our first. We’ve tackled many, from the plague in the 1350s to SARS in 2003. One would hope that we would be better prepared this time, however, it wasn’t the case. It is our tendency to be fearful of the new, the unknown, and COVID-19 was no exception.
After the World Health Organization declared the pandemic on 11th March, 2020, Governments across the globe enforced complete lockdowns. Scientists and epidemiologists got to work on the different aspects of the disease, from the pathophysiology and epidemiology, to treatments and vaccines. Families in lockdown did their bit by watching the movie- Contagion on Netflix. The healthcare workers, however, braced for the worst; A disaster of magnitudes we had not seen, nor trained for.
The pandemic was a wrench in the perfect clockwork of our practice. However, This was an exciting time. A time to make a real difference. A time to finally be proud of this profession that has become dangerously aristocratic in its development.
Phase two: Preparation and action. The work began, the trenches were dug, and the soldiers were enlisted. Make-shift hospitals were built from scratch. Systems for patient testing, contact tracing, and the COVID-19 isolation pathway were defined. Healthcare workers irrespective of their current medical background were recruited and trained. We trained in infection control practices, usage of personal protective equipment, and disease management. The art and science of medicine was now replaced with military precision. Egos and hierarchy aside, everyone pitched in at their capacity. It now made sense, similar to the camaraderie of soldiers.
We as healthcare providers, grew alongside with this disease. . We learned to identify the different patterns of the disease and how to manage it. Literature on the disease expanded manifold each day. Our ‘eminence-based’ use of seemingly random medication were replaced by scientifically sound, evidence-based medicine. The system was getting better every day. Not only did we have to manage COVID-19 patients, but also other patients with chronic illnesses. Soon, we were able to expand our practice to the digital platform via telemedicine to help those patients who were lost to follow up due to the lockdown.
Words are powerful. While information helped tailor our practice, mis-information was rampantly spreading through the social media. The unknown that was feared, was now slowly being stigmatized. Stigma has changed the face of diseases like HIV/AIDS in the past. Stigma segregates, penalizes and prevents responsible dialogue. It had to be nipped in the bud. The only way to do so was through public education and awareness. We engaged with the public through the radio, news, and social media. Campaigns were launched to bust myths and tackle misinformation. We tried to educate the public on the prevention and transmission of the disease, and the appropriate ways to show support for the affected. On some level, we were definitely successful.
Phase three: Fatigue. Well, Phase two definitely looked good, right? But how long can someone sustain this? (Hats off to the military, I must say). The pandemic took its toll too, chipping off our capacity – mentally, and physically. I think it was expected. With bruised noses,, working in a highly contaminated area, with a constant worry about exposing loved ones at home – I cannot think of anyone who would adapt well to this. By the end of the year, we were burned out.
Phase four: Realization. It was only when I had to fight my own battle with COVID-19 at home that I realized some things are easier said than done. My whole family tested positive, which made it just a little easier to monitor each other. We washed our hands off the virus, and our minds off the anxiety. We kept each other in good spirits while taking the necessary medication and a healthy diet, all in complete isolation. I can only imagine the plight of people who have to isolate themselves alone for the entire duration.
I have seen both sides of the coin. I have been a COVID-19 warrior and a patient. I discovered that a positive frame of mind is as essential as the medication and a healthy diet for speedy recovery. The anxiety cannot be avoided – even those of us on the frontline can be consumed by it – but, a positive attitude goes a long way.
Having recovered and being working again, with a better understanding and respect for the disease, I am now filled with a new enthusiasm to defeat it. And this is not just my story, but the story of every frontline worker who has worked tirelessly to help our country fight this pandemic.
If I have ever understood what it means to serve, it was in 2020. Moreover, in order to defeat this disease, we now have vaccines in our arsenal. But like I have mentioned, a lot of mis-information is already circulating about vaccine efficacy and safety. I urge everyone to have faith in medical science and participate in the government’s vaccination drive to bring down this monster of COVID-19 to its knees as early as possible.
COVID-19 will alter our social behaviour permanently. But there is an opportunity to change our lifestyle and mental health. It is a time for new growth.
Remember, your COVID test should not be the only positive thing in life.
The writer is Dr Neeraj Nischal, Associate professor, medicine department,AIIMS & edited by Tanya bansal.