Only patients and no staff could be seen inside a ward at Delhi's AIIMS hospital, the country's top medical facility, as nurses went on an indefinite strike citing a long list of demands including clarity on salary structure and a freeze on hiring on contract.
The photo of a deserted AIIMS ward, widely shared online, reflected a frightening reality in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) today made an emotional appeal to the hospital's 5,000-strong nursing staff, which declared the strike in the afternoon.
"I am very proud of the AIIMS family for the tremendous work done during the COVID-19... the nation is proud. Unfortunately, at this time of pandemic, the nurses' union has gone on strike," AIIMS Director Prof Randeep Guleria said in a video message to the AIIMS Nurses Union.
"The nurses' union had put in 23 demands. Almost all the demands have been met by the AIIMS administration and the government," Mr Guleria said.
He evoked Florence Nightingale, with the WHO marking her 200th birth anniversary by naming the year 2020 "The International Year Of The Nurse and The Midwife".
"This year we celebrate 200 years of Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, who worked tirelessly. Today we look at the nurses to work tirelessly for those who suffered during the pandemic," he said.
The striking nurses, however, didn't seem in a mood to relent.
A spokesperson for the union told NDTV that the nurses had been making these demands for a long time. Last year, the government had reportedly called them to a meeting and assured a solution to their issues, only to procrastinate indefinitely.
"Till recently, we were told our demands were being considered. Key among them were the Sixth Pay Commission's payouts and the hiring of contractual workers. Now we've been informed that interviews were held just today to recruit contractual workers," Fameer CK, General Secretary of the AIIMS Nurses Union, told NDTV.
"We have utmost respect for Prof Randeep Guleria. But if he claims all our demands have already been met, then what were all the recent assurances about?" he asked.
On his part, the AIIMS director said that multiple meeting have been held with the union, explaining to them their wrong interpretation of the 6th Pay Commission's recommendations. Nevertheless, he said, the government was willing to consider sympathetically their demands as fresh ones.
"It, however, seems inappropriate that when a country is fighting a pandemic...the nurse union has decided to go on a strike...I appeal to all of you to come back to work and really help get us through," Professor Guleria said.
The Union Health Secretary, citing an order by the Delhi High Court that said there should be no disruption of nursing work in AIIMS, said non-compliance will be treated as offence under the Disaster Management Act and the Indian Penal Code. "Action will be taken against defaulting authorities and employees," the Health Secretary said in a statement.