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India’s government has implemented a new law to protect medical workers from abuse and attacks by members of the public as they battle the country’s coronavirus epidemic.  

The executive order, signed by President Ram Nath Kovind and valid for six months (but indefinitely if approved by parliament), makes attacks on health care workers a non-bailable offense and proscribes a prison sentence from six months to seven years for anyone convicted of the crime. 

The new law comes after a string of attacks and discriminatory attacks against doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus. 

“No incident of violence or harassment against them [doctors] will be tolerated,” Prakash Javadekar, a government minister, said Wednesday.

Thousands of doctors had been scheduled to hold candlelight vigils, protesting the attacks and demanding protection, outside hospitals Wednesday night, but the events were called off after the government promised their demands for legal protection would be met. 

A doctor wearing a hazmat suit and a mask checks the temperature of residents during a nationwide lockdown in India to slow the spread of COVID-19, in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, during the coronavirus outbreak, in Mumbai, India, April 11, 2020.

Francis Mascarenhas/REUTERS

On Sunday night in the southern Indian city of Chennai, a doctor had to secretly bury his colleague, Dr Simon Hercules, who died of COVID-19, at a cemetery with the help of just two hospital staff after a mob attacked their ambulance, apparently fearing the burial would spread the virus.

In two other incidents, people refused to allow two other doctors who died from COVID-19 to be given their last rites. Earlier this month, two female doctors at a Delhi hospital were assaulted by a local resident “for spreading coronavirus” when they were out buying groceries. 

In Madhya Pradesh state, a group of health workers was attacked by a mob when they visited a neighborhood to conduct coronavirus screening.