Doctors at the receiving end in a pandemic
Sathish kumar Periyasamy |Pixabay

"My doctor is nice; every time I see him, I'm ashamed of what I think of doctors in general."

- Mignon McLaughlin

Soon after India's thumping victory over Pakistan in 1971 war, the architect of the victory Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was interviewed by BBC, London. During the course of the informal interview, the celebrated war veteran said, “I'm happy to have served as a soldier but would have been happier had I been a doctor to save lives.” It's worthwhile to mention that Manekshaw's father was a doctor in Amritsar, Punjab and he was born there.

The medical profession is always hailed as the noblest profession and a practitioner of this profession is universally seen as a saviour. The Greek word Enas Giatros (mainly Giatros or Doktoras) for a doctor has a whole spectrum of noble connotations to augment the ambit of a doctor or a medic. There in Greek, a doctor is not just a saviour, but also a healer, guide, friend and also a torch-bearer. That's why, the Greek word for a medic comprehensively defines a doctor and his/her functions. The Arabs consider the medical profession as the Work of Almighty (Kaar-e-Allah) and a Tabeeb (a doctor in Arabic; from ilm-e-tibb) is a farishta-e-Parvardigaar (angel of god). Undeniably, a doctor is a man of god who saves life, nay lives.

At this juncture, when a pandemic is devouring human lives across the globe, the stupendous contributions of doctors increase manifold and also become shiningly obvious. India is at the receiving end as the scourge of coronavirus is at its rampaging best (or worst?). In such a grim scenario, the role of a doctor as a saviour and healer assumes greater propositions.

But before that, it'll be in the fitness of things to remember that our ancient 'doctors' or chikitsak envisaged and enlarged a doctor's horizon by calling him Shrishtieshu Ekam Sthitpragyam (the only stoic in the whole universe, Charak Samhita, pre-2nd-century CE text, opening verse). This is arguably the best and most important attribute accrued to a doctor.

While taking the traditional Hippocratic Oath (an oath embodying the code of medical ethics), a doctor is well aware of his expected sangfroid and unflappable approach to an exalted profession: That he's not supposed to lose his composure at any point of time.

And doctors in all ages and eras have amply exuded their chilled-out attitude in the face of extreme adversities.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, in this age of in-your-face social media, the assaults on doctors all over India are being reported at regular intervals. They're receiving bricks and bouquets in an equal measure.

But these 'sitting ducks of mankind' (writer and doctor A J Cronin's apt phrase for all docs) have more often got bricks and barbs than they ever received bouquets. The way doctors in government hospitals in India are indefatigably attending to coronavirus patients risking their own lives, deserves utmost praise from all quarters or at least, a token acknowledgement. In the process of saving lives, many doctors have lost their lives. Yet, our attitude toward them is not-so-complimentary. Remember and compare this with the plight of doctors in England, the country of modern medicines and advanced medical science, when nine bouts of Bubonic plague in the span of 400 years from 1350 to 1770 devastated the country, only doctors were out to save lives. Alas, what they got? Many of them were lynched and even crucified along with the so-called witches, believed to spread plague! They were called 'offspring of swine' by the rank ungrateful English public. English historian and essayist Sir Thomas Carlyle ruefully wrote, 'A country that doesn't respect its doctors, is a country of savage brutes.'

When Bombay Presidency and Poona were ravaged by plague in September 1896, so many doctors, saving the lives of patients, died unsung and unlamented. No one remembers them. Do the names of Dr Chintamani Sitalvad, Dr S S Iyer, Dr Mahadev Haldankar, Dr Andrew Mackenzie, to name but a few, ring a bell? There's no mention of these selfless doctors anywhere in the world and the ever-ubiquitous Google or Wikipedia also don't provide any information on these unfortunate souls.

It's a pity that in 1981, IMA (Indian Medical Association) couldn't provide the complete list of the brave doctors who sacrificed their lives saving the patients of Kala-azar (Black fever or Dumdum fever caused by infection with leishmania parasites) in Orissa and Tarai regions of North Bengal in the late sixties and early seventies. Those selfless doctors had only one motive: To eradicate kala-azar from the map of the sub-continent. Alas, despite that, these noble souls are still much sinned against than sinning. Casting opprobrium on doctors has become a national pastime and a veritable free for all. Every Indian seems to have become a past master on passing his/her 'valued' judgement on the modus operandi of medics. This is outright unfair because we're not in the know of how doctors are inadequately coping with COVID-19 sans any prior knowledge and probable ramification/s of it.

Many doctors laid down their lives during the First and Second World Wars. Those unnamed martyrs got interred in the dungeon of history, leaving no trace behind. No one remembers them.

In fact, doctors not only in India but all over the world, never got what they so richly deserved. Weaned on WhatsApp messages and fake news the 'super-sagacious' people (they're mostly concentrated in India!) are blaming WHO (World Health Organisation) and its Ethiopian Director-General Tedros Adhanom for keeping the whole world in dark about the deadly coronavirus. These conspiracy-theorists, who're a dime a dozen, are hell-bent upon proving that WHO is in cahoots with the perfidious China. Fiddlesticks! These people must refer to The Lancet, November, 2019 issue. Four eminent immunologists, associated with the WHO, hinted that a pandemic of this enormity might engulf the whole world in next six months! And mind you, this simple Ethiopian head of WHO was a renowned public health researcher who without a semblance of fanfare spread awareness about AIDS in the rather backward continent of Africa.

Granted, people inveighing against mercenary doctors cannot and shouldn't be condemned and overlooked. There're indeed unscrupulous doctors in this field who inveigle unsuspecting people into their clinics and nursing homes and wallow in filthy lucre. But doctors in general are still ethical people who listen to the voice of their conscience.

I adduce my own example. When my professor of Arabic and Persian at Al-Azhar, Cairo, Dr Zaifa Ashraf was breathing her last at Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital, London, oncologists Dr Norman Sheffield, Dr Daniel Kordoz and Karachi-born Dr Altaf Abbas Rizvi tried tooth and nail to save her. But to no avail. When she passed away, all the docs mourned and waived off the hospital bill completely. Their nonchalant logic was: We couldn't save her life, so why take money?

A doctor is an eternal saviour. The famous novelist Dr Somerset Maugham, who never practised, used to say, 'A doctor never has an enemy because he tries to save the life of even his enemy!'

Let's doff our hats to these healers and saviours in these distressing and precarious times.

The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilizations and cultures.

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