SFU Public Square presents lecture on the healthcare crisis in India

Dr. Vaibhav Saria discusses social complexities leading to an increase in violence towards healthcare workers

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overhead shot of a stethoscope, medications, and syringe.
Tension between Western biomedicine and ayurvedic approaches to healing contribute to violence towards healthcare providers in India. PHOTO: Julia Zyablova / Unsplash

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer

Content warning: contains depictions of violence and abuse.

On February 2, Dr. Vaibhav Saria, assistant professor at SFU’s department of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies presented “Care and Crisis in India.” Saria’s lecture focused on the simultaneous celebration and violence that doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers face while working through the COVID-19 pandemic in India. The lecture was largely informed by Saria’s fieldwork on the tuberculosis crisis in India, where they spent seven year studying with a multidisciplinary team. 

Saria listed the many forms of violence inflicted upon healthcare workers in India. Many healthcare providers were evicted from their homes due to landlords’ fears that they were infectious carriers. The Indian Medical Association reported over 1,700 doctors who died of COVID-19, and there were many reports of patients and their families attacking practitioners.

“Providers had already started sounding the alarm for the last 10 years, at least in published medical journals, regarding patients, families, and kin attacking them and which was adversely affecting the delivery of care,” said Saria. “Providers had gone on strike across cities, before COVID-19 as well, to ask for interventions to prevent such incidents. Apart from widely covered reports of lynching and grievous injury, doctors reported receiving threats on phone calls, intimidation, and verbal abuse.”

Saria explained there is a common historical precedence of violence throughout outbreaks such as the 1897 plague epidemic in India, but added examples of non-violent narratives are found historically too

“Historians comparing epidemics and outbreaks across time, place, and diseases have pointed out that not all epidemics resulted in violence. The influenza epidemic of 1918 brought communities together, encouraging charities, and prompting tolerance across class and race,” said Saria.

They said the similarities between the 1897 plague epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic in India are due to negligence of the social aspect of crises. Through Saria’s work studying the tuberculosis crisis in India, they discovered there were many social tensions and complexities around healthcare in India due to constraints of time and resources.

“The constraints under which health is negotiated, the sheer demand that outstrips the supply, renders mistrust a constant presence in the clinic,” said Saria. They believe this outcome, due to a lack of resources, creates an image of “uncaring, disinterested, and corrupt” healthcare providers. 

Saria explained the violence towards practitioners during COVID-19 also stems from historical tension still present today between Western colonial biomedicine and Indigenous ayurvedic medicine. Ayurvedic medicine is a “traditional system of medicine” in India and involves the use of herbal remedies and yoga, among other techniques, to heal. Biomedicine, on the other hand, stems from Western medicine and incorporates “research in biology” in its application. 

Saria observed that doctors trained in Western biomedicine would use ayurvedic medicine to criticize the “over-medicalization” of health. 

“Providers trained in biomedicine would often get irritated by patients asking for medicines and quick symptomatic relief by [snapping] at the patients that they should eat well, do yoga, and would also prescribe ayurvedic supplements, claiming they were better than biomedicine.” 

They said due to the constraints of time with each patient, providers would be forced to provide various prescriptions for symptoms based on their medical judgement. This would lead to more accusations that health practitioners were over-prescribing because of financial incentives from pharmaceutical companies. 

Saria noted the government’s role in solving these issues. “There is a larger ethical question here of funding health to resolve the structural issues that had resulted in the situation. Issues [include] one of the lowest rates of government spending, expensive private medical school education, lack of professors to fill medical school, posts not being filled in hospitals, shortage of post-graduate training, salaries not paid on time.” 

This event was recorded and is available for viewing through SFU Public Square’s Youtube channel. For upcoming events in the President’s Faculty Lecture series, visit the SFU Public Square website.