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COVID fatigue among healthcare professionals is real, says 39-year-old Dr Samir Khurana, recalling how the pandemic and its severe waves in the last two years have left him and many from his fraternity "mentally and physically exhausted". But for Khurana (name changed) the biggest fear was he becoming the spreader of the infection at home. "It was a huge part of the already stressful and tiring times we were facing," he said.
"I vividly remember the day the first COVID case was diagnosed at the medical facility in Delhi that I work in. My shift had just begun and we were updated with the report. I wore my personal protective equipment (PPE) and started treating patients," he said. Khurana, who did not want his or the hospital's name to be revealed, said initially he felt claustrophobic in PPE, but "now it has become my uniform".
"Since 2020, we are constantly on our toes. COVID fatigue is real for healthcare professionals who have been tirelessly working for the past two years," he said. Recalling how he lived in a small room on his terrace in isolation after his shift and on some days never returned home, Khurana said, "I had to protect my family, especially my elderly parents who are in their 80s."
With the pandemic on the verge of entering its third year, Khurana said, "He and many others feel mentally and physically exhausted. My daughter will start kindergarten this year and I feel I have missed the first two years of her life. Even now I isolate myself from my family members and do not participate in family functions," he said.
The first case of COVID was reported in India in January 2020 and since then three waves of the virus have struck the country, infecting over 3.92 crore people and claiming 4.89 lakh lives. India is currently reeling under the third wave of COVID, which is driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Experts say the pandemic has put healthcare professionals through an extreme test of resilience both physically and mentally.
A medical officer who is in charge at a government health facility in Delhi, Dr Sajid Anwar, said when the pandemic began, panic and hysteria was all around. "More than maintaining our safety it was necessary that our patients followed safety measures, which they were not. They would not wear masks properly, and didn't maintain proper distancing while waiting. Even those with symptoms were not willing to get tested," he said.
Anwar said though people are now aware of norms he still worries about the safety of his family. "On the work front I was confident that I could manage my patients, but personally it was a very difficult time. My daughter was two months old. For her safety, I sent her and my wife to her grandparent's house. Unfortunately, my wife got infected," he said.
It was a stressful time, Anwar said, adding that the pandemic has taken a huge mental and physical toll on the healthcare fraternity.
Dr Suranjit Chatterjee, senior consultant, internal medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, said in the beginning not much was known about COVID and this caused stress among doctors, especially on exposure and spreading the infection at home. "There was also stress regarding the treatment of patients because outcomes were not known, and many patients wanted details of their treatment and clear-cut answers to their queries," he said.
During the second wave due to lack of facilities, hospital beds and appropriate care, it became very stressful for doctors to see their patients suffering, Chatterjee said.
Though there was immense stress and shortages, doctors were able to cope. This is because of their training, he said, adding that "they know that life is unpredictable and are mentally and physically trained for any situation".
He advised that the best practice for tackling COVID fatigue is to continue doing what they enjoy. To keep themselves mentally fit and tackle COVID fatigue, people and healthcare professionals alike must pursue their hobbies and the things they are passionate about. Many are doing this, Chatterjee said.
As of November 2021, the number of registered medical practitioners in India is more than 13 lakh.
Dr Prakriti Poddar, managing trustee, Poddar Foundation, said cognitive behavioural therapy can also help caregivers deal with personal issues be it work-related or at home.
"Engaging in brain exercises before and after work is a good way to stay positive and healthy. Yoga has many mental exercises that can be beneficial. Apart from that healthcare providers should build a support system apart from family members and hospital peers," she said.
"Friends and neighbours can be a strong support system. Music, dance, art therapies can calm the mind and bring about positivity and enhance creativity," Poddar said.
Many hospitals these days are introducing music and art-based therapy for their staff, she said.
Dr Manju Gupta, senior consultant, obstetrician and gynaecologist, Motherhood Hospitals, Noida, said the dedication and work of doctors continue even as the pandemic enters its third year.
"To cope with the third wave, we have been taking all safety precautions to protect not just our staff but also the patients. The doctors continue to provide teleconsultations despite being sick themselves. Making sure the patients can access our services whenever they need us has been our priority, especially in these tough times," Gupta said.
During the pandemic, as of November 29, 2021, families of 1,509 health workers, who died due to COVID-19-related duties, have been paid insurance claims of Rs 50 lakh each.
Representational picture from PTI: Doctors in PPE kit take selfies in Amravati, Maharashtra.
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