By Devjyot Ghoshal and Aditya Kalra
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Shortages of protective health gear in India are forcing some doctors to use raincoats and motorbike helmets while fighting the coronavirus, exposing the weak state of the public health system ahead of an anticipated surge in COVID-19 cases.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government said India was trying to get personal protective equipment in bulk domestically and from South Korea and China to meet the shortages.
More than a dozen doctors battling the outbreak, which has so far infected 1,251 people and killed 32, told Reuters they were concerned that without this proper gear, they could become carriers of the disease.
In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, drivers of around 4,700 ambulances that mainly serve government hospitals went on strike on Tuesday, demanding proper safety gear and health insurance.
"We won't risk our lives unless our demand is met," Hanuman Pandey, president of the Ambulance Workers Association, told Reuters.
According to one projection, more than 100,000 people could be infected by mid-May, putting India's underfunded health system and scarce doctors under severe strain.
In the eastern city of Kolkata, junior doctors at the major coronavirus treatment facility - Beliaghata Infectious Disease Hospital - were given plastic raincoats to examine patients last week, according to two doctors there and photographs reviewed by Reuters.
"We won't work at the cost of our lives," said one of the doctors, who declined to be named because he feared retaliation from the authorities.
The hospital's medical superintendent in-charge, Dr. Asis Manna, declined to comment.
In northern Haryana state near New Delhi, Dr. Sandeep Garg of ESI Hospital said he had been using a motorbike helmet because he didn't have any N95 masks, which offer significant protection against virus particles.
"I put on a helmet - it has a visor in front so it covers my face, adding another layer over the surgical mask," Garg said.
India's health ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters queries.
The plight of doctors in the pandemic has cast a light on a dilapidated and overburdened public health system that has for years been starved of funds and an overhaul. India spends about 1.3% of its GDP on public health, among the lowest in the world.
"We are living on a prayer, it's not that we can save ourselves by relying on the health system," said a senior federal government official in New Delhi, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.
In a state-run hospital in the city of Rohtak in Haryana, several junior doctors have been declining to treat patients unless they have adequate safety equipment.
They also established an informal COVID-19 fund, to which each doctor contributed 1,000 rupees ($13.27) to buy masks and other face coverings, one of the doctors said.
"Everybody is scared," the doctor said. "Nobody wants to work without protection."
(Additional reporting Saurabh Sharma in LUCKNOW. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Miral Fahmy)