New Delhi, India – At least 5,000 nurses and paramedic staff at one of India’s premier medical institutes have gone on an indefinite strike over “long-pending” demands, severely disrupting patient care during the coronavirus pandemic.
The protesting health workers at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), a sprawling complex in New Delhi, have put forth 23 demands before the government and the AIIMS authority.
The demands include fixing an “anomaly” in their salary structure, abolishment of gender-based reservation in the recruiting process of nursing officers and contractual appointments, and improving hospital accommodation.
India’s health ministry has warned of action and said non-compliance with the “code of conduct” will be treated as an offence under the Disaster Management Act.
The nurses Al Jazeera spoke to said they “feel bad” about the patients admitted in the hospital, but added that they were helpless and “don’t have a choice”.
“We tried to avoid this strike during the pandemic but the government have left us with no choice,” said Fameer CK, general secretary of the AIIMS Nurses’ Union.
“Majority of our demands were raised couple of years back. In October 2019, most of the demands were accepted by government and we were told they will be fulfilled by December  but unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
Fameer said the lack of accommodation for nursing staff within the AIIMS complex was one of the main demands.
In a video message on Monday evening, AIIMS director Randeep Guleria said the strike was “inappropriate and unfortunate” during the COVID-19 pandemic. He appealed to the nurses to return to work.
But the nursing staff on Tuesday went ahead with their protest and gathered outside Guleria’s office, raising slogans.
Nurse Anju Ali told Al Jazeera that health workers had been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself acknowledging that fact.
In March, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus, Modi had asked Indians to clap and bang steel plates to express the nation’s gratitude towards the doctors and nurses on the front lines of the fight against the disease.
“But this is how we are actually being treated,” she said.
“We approached the AIIMS authorities for a meeting on Monday afternoon but were told that not a single demand will be fulfilled. They were not even ready to listen to our demands and said if you want to go on a strike, go ahead,” Anju Ali told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, in the many AIIMS wards, doctors say the strike had “hampered patient care”, forcing them to do the work of the nursing staff as well.
“All the workload of the nursing staff has been put on the doctors now,” said Dr Pawan Sinhmar, general secretary of the Resident Doctors’ Association at AIIMS.
He said the nursing staff employed in the emergency departments and the ICUs have also gone on strike, which does not happen.
“The authorities should resolve the issue with the protesting nursing staff as soon as possible, otherwise the situation will lead to a big crisis,” he said.