They coughed at us, banged on car: Kerala doctor recounts protests in Poonthura

Residents of Poonthura, where a super-spread of COVID-19 was reported, turned hostile, after misguiding messages of testing reached them.
They coughed at us, banged on car: Kerala doctor recounts protests in Poonthura
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The gates to the Ayush centre in Kerala’s Poonthura were locked on the morning of Friday, July 10. Dr Dyuthi Hariprasad, leading a team of four health workers, found that strange. There were also no policemen nearby. As she was wondering, more than 50 people walked up to the car that had five health workers and the driver, and suddenly began to bang the vehicle, spit on it and talking angrily all at once.

Dyuthi, who had just begun her first job as a doctor barely 10 days ago, could not understand this reaction. It was only two days ago that she had come to the same location to collect swabs of the residents to test for coronavirus. They were very calm then. Dyuthi and her team had collected 145 swabs that day, out of which 59 turned positive. The day after that, another team collected 140 swabs, out of which 69 turned positive.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had revealed that there was a super spread in Poonthura and its neighbouring wards and the number of positive cases increasing rapidly everyday only confirmed their worst fears. It could turn into a community spread any time.

“It was in such a situation that we went to collect the swab again on Friday. There are three centres for swab collection in Poonthura – one is at the Ayush centre where I went, another at a madrassa and the third is at the Community Hospital. Since the Ayush centre was more accessible to people, many would come there. But on July 10, they were very suddenly hostile. We became very tense and we told the driver not to roll down the glass,” Dr Dyuthi says.

In between all the mayhem she could hear words of the angry protestors – “we don’t have the disease”, “the tests are a lie”, “they won’t give tea (at the hospital).”

CM Pinarayi alleged on Friday evening that the people were instigated by fake messages and campaigns. One of the fake messages that did the rounds was of antigen test being an inaccurate method for confirming the disease. This made the people think that they had no disease and they were forced to go to a treatment centre and mix with people who were tested positive. Both CM Pinarayi and Health Minister KK Shailaja cleared the air and explained that antigen testing was a most efficient method to test for the coronavirus, it also gave much faster results.

But neither Dyuthi nor the health workers with her were in a position to explain all of this to the angry crowd outside their car. There were two staff nurses, a nursing assistant, a lab assistant and the driver of the car, along with Dyuthi.

“The protestors were not wearing masks and one of them put their head inside and coughed, telling us that if they had COVID-19 we should get it too. Someone else said that they’d lock us up at the Ayush Centre till the media is alerted. At this point, one of the staff nurses with me, who lived in Poonthura, began to cry. It’s when they saw that it was mostly women in the car that someone in the crowd said, let them go.”

One of the reasons for the protest was that many who tested positive and were shifted to hospitals complained of poor treatment. There were accusations that too many people were put together in the same hall. “We take the positive cases to the Corona First Line Treatment Centre. The reason why there is a misunderstanding among the people is that many of them are asymptomatic, so they believe they don’t have the disease, and are being mixed with those who do. We have categorised the cases into three – A, where there are no symptoms or mild ones like a little cold, B where there is a fever or other co-morbidities such as diabetics or hypertension, and C, when the co-morbidities are more severe. In the treatment centre, people in category A and B are taken to the same ward since they are all positive and there is little chance that they could go into a bad state,” Dyuthi says.

The patients could be unhappy at having to change their food habits, she says, but the hospital staff are trying their best to provide. She agrees that people should be educated of the need to shift to a hospital and given time to prepare themselves to move away from the family for two weeks or more. The medical team relies on the service of volunteers for this.

The situation has been taken over by higher authorities and everyone from Minister Shailaja to the District Collector has reached out to the health workers. As of now, further tests would not be immediately done in Poonthura, until the people are given proper counselling. This is not an ideal situation considering the rise in cases from the area every day, but the tests can only be done with their cooperation. The doctors and other health workers would be given protection the next time they go there.

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