The vanishing ‘glaciers’

The COVID-19 pandemic caught everyone unawares and ill-prepared. Even developed countries have discovered that they do not have sufficient medical facilities and health workers. Everyone has been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with limited recourses and even countries like the USA and Italy have found that their budgetary allocation for health is not enough. People have now started talking about the fact that we don’t have enough doctors and sufficient number of beds in hospitals. Unfortunately, the health workers do not have the necessary personal protective equipment. This is true for all countries around the world. Even developed countries are struggling to source ventilators and protective gear such as masks.

Ladakh is also experiencing these challenges. Everyone seems to be discussing the shortage of doctors and trying to finda quick solution. Weare suddenly confronted by the fact that we don’t have the necessary medical facilities and enough beds in our hospital. This led to a growing consensus on the need to increase the health budget. People started comparing the national budget allocation for defence and health. The budget for health is invariably miniscule compared to that for defence. A microscopic virus has emerged as the most dreaded enemy and even countries like the USA, which has a large defence budget and a sophisticated arsenal of weapons, seem helpless.

All of this made me wonder why we don’t have enough doctors in Ladakh. It seemed illogical when people complained that there was no doctor in their village. It reminded me of discussions about water shortage in Ladakh when we should actually be more concerned about vanishing glaciers! I was among four students from Leh who were selected for an MBBS course in 1994. In the 26 years since, more than 100 doctors should have been added in the health sector in Leh but barely 97 have been inculcated. The glacier is definitely not adding to the water supply!

Being a doctor is tough. People in other parts of the world are also leaving this profession. Fewer students are opting for a career in medicine. As a result, we currently have only two physicians in Leh district when the sanctioned strength is for five. Nubra, Khaltse, Skurbuchan, Tangtse and Nyoma do not have a physician. Each of these places has a sanctioned post for a physician. The only reason these posts remain unoccupied is that we do not have a physician to fill them. So these places will have to manage without a physician as we currently have a scarcity.This shortage will probably linger for the near future and people will keep complaining about it.

The relatives of India’s first COVID-19 victim did not blame the deadly virus for the death but accused the treating doctors of negligence.This is not entirely unexpected. In India, people encouraged health workers by beating utensils and clapping, while at the same time there were incidences of people pelting stones at health workers and doctors. Health workers in certain parts of the country have also been physically assaulted. Some hospitals forced doctors to treat suspected cases of COVID-19 without personal protective gear, while many others had no option but to work with minimal protection such as a simple mask.

I hope that after this pandemic ends, we will have better hospitals and every country will increase their health budget. Yet, we as a society must ponder on why we have such a shortage of trained personnel in this profession, which was once considered to be an attractive career. Why are our students not completing their education? Why are they dropping out ofschool? Why are they opting for a career in an industry such as tourism that is notoriously unpredictable and is threatening our environment and culture? Why are our youth not aspiring for a career in medicine? We cannot complain about the shortage of doctors unless we are able to answer these questions. Policy-makers must give due attention to unintended developments in the health sector and formulate policies to make the medical profession more attractive to students.

To return to my earlier analogy, we should focus on nurturing our vanishing glaciers instead of complaining about water shortage. The water scarcity is caused by receding glaciers. However, this is a global phenomenon. Glaciers around the world are receding due to human actions that have harmed the environment. It seems that we can only be a spectator to this unfolding crisis. We cannot stop industries. We cannot stop using our cars. We cannot stop polluting our environment. It will take our country a while to become carbon neutral, switch from conventional sourcesto renewable energy, to go organic, and to control our population. It will take a while despite knowing that we must not pollute our environment and instead nurture the environment.

On the face of it, environmental problems don’t seem to have a solution. Glaciers will vanish, the planet’s climatic system will change and Earth will become inhospitable once water sources become unfit for consumption. Many people argue that we may have to move to a new planet soon.There are people who are exploring if a planet like Mars that is inhospitable for humans can somehow be made more hospitable once Earth becomes inhospitable! I too believed that there are no solutions for Ladakh’s water crisis. I have heard people claim Ladakh’s water will last for a maximum of 30 years and that we must make full use of it while it lasts. These people argue that we should build hotels and make use of Ladakh’s resources to the maximum as we may have to leave the region at some point.

However, COVID-19 made me reconsider these beliefs. There is a solution to each problem we face today. Who would have thought that New Delhi’s sky will ever turn turquoise blue or that dolphins would once again visit Mumbai’s shores? Who would have thought that wild animals that had disappeared after their habitats were turned into roads and airports would return one day? The coronavirus has underlined the meanness of humanity. It has forced humans to think about other life-forms that share the planet with us and deserve kindness and compassion from us. Corona has made a profession in healthcare seem noble once again.

Humanity will surely survive this pandemic. I hope that we learn from this pandemic and equip our hospitals. Health should be a priority sector and these services should be accessible to everyone. I hope that humans will also understand the importance of prevention of diseases. Such new and evolving diseases don’t have a treatment, which means that we now have to learn to live with such viruses.

By Dr Spalchen Gonbo

Dr. Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Leh.

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