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Doctors Against Medical Apartheid Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China; some called it the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” a name that caused an uptick in global violence against Asians. In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the then-unnamed Coronavirus would henceforth be known officially as COVID-19 — a name which purposely did not include a reference to China. “Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the time.

When we look back in history, the antisemitic prejudices of 14th century Europe resulted in Jews being accused of spreading the plague. Echoes of this are emerging in India today, where Muslims are being blamed for the spread of COVID-19.

As physicians of Indian origin, we see an evolving humanitarian crisis amidst a global pandemic where COVID-19 is given a race and a religion. Although this pandemic is uncharted territory when it comes to predicting the true impact of the virus, one thing is certain that there has been a significant upsurge in hate speech, stigmatizing and blaming. Public health officials have warned against targeting of minority groups. 

Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, is calling on governments to push back “aggressively” against the rising incidents of “blaming of religious minorities for the COVID virus,” including the rise in usage of #CoronaJihad and other hashtags trending in India. Media references to Indian Muslims as “super-spreaders” and “single-source” promotes bigotry. By painting Muslims as the “single source” of all infection in a country with a population of over one billion, some journalists are implicating they are not just carriers of the disease; they are the disease.

Large portions of the Indian media are propagating fake news and conspiracy theories. The use of hashtags such as ‘Corona-Jihad’ and ‘Bio-Jihad’ is designed to create a mistrust and fear of Muslims, many times culminating in violent attacks and loss of life. It has even been suggested that for Muslims, the willful spreading of novel Coronavirus is a religious obligation.

What is most concerning is that this hatred has affected the medical fraternity in India as well. At a district hospital in Bharatpur district, Rajasthan, a pregnant Muslim woman was allegedly refused emergency admission to a labor ward on the grounds of her faith. She gave birth during her transfer to another hospital, but tragically the baby died. An investigation is underway.

In another appalling development, a government-run hospital in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, is actually segregating Muslim and Hindu COVID-19 patients in separate wards. According to The Indian Express Dr Gunvant Rathod, the Medical Superintendent of Ahmedabad Civil Hospital has cited government orders for this action. In another instance, Valentis Cancer Hospital in Meerut advertised its prejudice in print denying medical care to Muslim patients; it’s now is under investigation and has been threatened with cancellation of its license due to this.

This situation in the world’s largest democracy is nothing short of medical apartheid and should be extremely troubling for people of conscience everywhere. “Single them out”, “isolate them now in wards, later in detention centers”, seems to be the hate rhetoric being spread in the name of religion. Practicing prejudice in a hospital, at any time is unethical. In the midst of a raging global pandemic it’s not only immoral and inhuman, it should also be a crime! As physicians we owe it to our Hippocratic oath to stand for ethical standards to promote health and healing and to “do no harm”. At a time of heroic work by our doctors, nurses and medical staff across India, such incidents bring shame to our fraternity.

We need every statutory body that regulates the practice of medicine in India and abroad to speak up. We need leaders in the medical fraternity to show not just medical, but moral leadership. This is a time of life and death, a time for coming together, a time when human beings are at their most vulnerable. It’s a time when being a doctor never meant more. If, at such a time, the medical establishment looks away from these incidents, they will bear blame for a new epidemic – medical apartheid.

We urge leaders in the field of healthcare in the USA and elsewhere to condemn these attempts to bring our profession into disrepute. The need of the hour is scientific endeavors and human solidarity to overcome this devastating pandemic.

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