The sprawling metropolis Mumbai, home to a burgeoning population of 13 million, has become the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the country as the municipality ramps up testing, particularly in the city’s impoverished areas.

The city’s coronavirus death toll was 1,758, with 50,000 cases reported in the metropolitan region and the neighboring satellite towns as of June 9, according to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Municipal workers have been busy disinfecting Kurar village, one of the worst-hit areas.

Further exacerbating the situation, health professionals have been threatened, chased and beaten for setting up screening camps in various parts of India. A team of doctors ran for their lives in Indore in April as a mob chased them with sticks and stones. Video of the incident went viral on social media, prompting widespread condemnation.

Scorching weather has increased medical practitioners’ woes as wearing cumbersome personal protective equipment, known as PPE, has made working conditions challenging. The protective coverings are making it all the more difficult for doctors to work in such weather, as well as preventing them from wiping away their perspiration for fear of risking contamination. Paramedics have to wait until the end of their shifts to eat, drink and use bathrooms.

“It’s suffocating inside the PPE, with the gloves and the mask. It gets very hot in the sun,” said Dr. Palak Kaserwal, who leads a 10-member team of doctors and nurses screening COVID-19 patients in claustrophobic shanties in Mumbai.

India’s understaffed healthcare system is on the verge of collapse, with just one doctor available for every 1,457 patients — 457 more patients than the World Health Organization‘s recommended doctor-to-patient ratio. Doctors at many hospitals, including King Edward Memorial, Nair, Sion and Fortis, have had their salaries cut up to 50%, and some doctors have not been paid for the past two months.

Dr. Rakesh Mehta has been struggling to organize villagers and ensure social distancing. The low levels of education and awareness are compounding problems for health workers.

“I can sense that the residents look scared and worried,” said Mehta. “They must have never seen doctors in PPE suits before in their neighborhood.”

Doctors prepare to test symptomatic people potentially infected with COVID-19 in Kurar village of Central Mumbai, India on May 24, 2020. (Subhash Sharma/Zenger)

Kaserwal emphasized the need for coronavirus screening and subsequent quarantining of COVID-19 patients at Kurar village to contain transmission.

“Even though it is a big challenge, it is necessary that we conduct this screening camp,” she said.

The screening camp at Kurar village lasted about five hours, screening about 200 locals. Swabs from a dozen suspected COVID-19 cases were taken for testing earlier in the week. Two people were rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital after showing severe symptoms at the camp.

After an exhausting day of work, Kaserwal received a message from her grandparents, who were inquiring about her well-being, and then she read a morale-boosting message from a municipality official.

Doctors test symptomatic people potentially infected with COVID-19 in Kurar village of Central Mumbai, India on May 24, 2020. (Subhash Sharma/Zenger)

“We doctors need to stay positive, focused and stay bonded together to fight this pandemic,” the message from the municipality stated. “We have to keep screening until this pandemic is over.”

The slums of Dharavi, where the Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire” was filmed, and the slums of Shivajinagar, Govandi and Bainganwadi are densely populated with migrant workers. Migrants use community toilets and often share 12-foot-square rooms, making it virtually impossible to adhere to social distancing protocols.

Symptomatic people potentially infected with COVID-19 wait for testing in Kurar village of Central Mumbai, India on May 24, 2020. (Subhash Sharma/Zenger)

The migrants’ problems are exacerbated by lack of work opportunities, which in turn compels them to breach lockdown restrictions to make ends meet. At one point, rumors circulated that government reportedly considered calling in the army to help maintain law and order and ensure lockdown restrictions were carried out in Mumbai’s slums.

Leaders denied that rumor last moth.

“Our doctors and police force are tremendously overworked. They need a break, so we are considering calling central [police] forces to come and assist,” said Uddhav Thackeray, the chief minister of Maharashtra.

Meanwhile, the families of health care workers are worried, not only because social distancing guidelines are flouted, but also  but because of the infection threat to doctors during the unprecedented health crisis.

“We explain to our families that it’s our duty and we have to do it,” Kaserwal said.

“Just like many of my colleagues, I too haven’t visited my family for the last 15 days,” said Mehta. “We are required in the field here. The screening is going on a war front. There is a lot of work to do, so we are not able to give out time to our families.”

Daksha Patel, local municipal councilor of Kurar village, praised physicians’ resolve and expressed her gratitude to the health workers.

“These doctors are the saviors,” she said. “Without them, we can’t even imagine if we can survive the next few months. Hats off to them.”

(Edited by Rvel Zahid and Judy Isacoff.)


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