India: "COVID-19 has changed me as a person and as a doctor"

05 May 2021

As the second wave of COVID-19 is reaching extremely alarming levels in India Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has scaled up its intervention in Mumbai, where the increasing number of people with COVID-19 has devastated the health care system and overwhelmed frontline workers. Dr Gautam Harigovind, medical activity manager for MSF’s COVID-19 project in Mumbai, shares his story. 


Dr Sharanya Ramakrishna, is testing for COVID-19 by taking a swab sample at sample collection Mumbai. © Abhinav Chatterjee / MSF August 2020.

"Picture a thousand-bed hospital. There are 28 wards, as well as the emergency, casualty, and triage areas. It’s a makeshift hospital in a huge metal tent. Walking into it the first time was a surreal experience; I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like walking into a huge ship. The ceiling is really high, but the ventilation is not great. It meets some standards, but it doesn’t really suit the Mumbai environment. During the morning, Mumbai becomes very humid. It’s excruciatingly hot. And working in a protective suit for six hours is unimaginable. The heat is almost too much to take.

This is the second week of our emergency project. Last week, we had about 200 to 250 new patients admitted every day. While the situation in Mumbai remains very serious, as a team, we have had a better week. This week we’ve seen improving results from our patients, better than we expected.

When I first began working at the Mumbai COVID-19 centre in September 2020 it was chaos, with waves and waves of scared people coming in every day. After that, things smoothed out; patient care smoothed out.

Today, our greatest challenge is attrition of staff. People just cannot work in this environment for long periods of time. It causes burnout, and the burnout cycles are faster now than in the first wave. Right now, it’s three days and you’re burned out. Even if your shift is only six hours, those are COVID-19 hours. It’s the conditions, and the sheer number of patients. There are 28 wards. Each ward should have two nurses present per shift, and there are four shifts. You do the math and you can see—it’s hard to find that many nurses.

"During the morning, Mumbai becomes very humid. It’s excruciatingly hot. And working in a protective suit for six hours is unimaginable. The heat is almost too much to take."

We are focused on recruiting and training new staff. Many of the Ministry of Health (MoH) nurses we work with are fresh graduates who’ve been thrust into something that nobody really expected or can really fathom. They’re trying to get the job done, but they’re inexperienced and don’t know how to manage their work or their time. Our MSF nurses are supporting MoH nurses with mentorship and coaching at the patient’s bedside.

COVID-19 has changed me as a person and as a doctor. People are dying, but I’ve become used to it. We have come to terms with it. I’ve not had the time to reflect on them. I used to be very patient-centreed, all about patient advocacy. Now, I’m scared of building relationships with patients. At first I did that, and then I would come back for my next shift and see their empty bed, and that would break my heart. Even the fact that I now refer to them as “the patient.” I would have used a name before. Or I would say, “my patient.” This is how it’s changed me."


Will you support
our emergency medical work?

Médecins Sans Frontières is providing support and medical care around the world to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re providing essential care through dedicated COVID-19 facilities, equipping frontline medical staff with PPE and training, and supporting health authorities through testing and community education.

With 50 years of experience fighting epidemics, we’re committed to protecting the most vulnerable and saving lives.

Can you help increase our capacity to respond to emergencies like COVID-19 by making a donation today?