March 22, 2020, saw the first day of lockdown in India, i.e. the Janata Curfew, an initiative to tackle the grave situation that had already brought some powerful nations of the world on their knees. Everybody knew that the first stage of the lockdown was just the beginning of many more to come. While the states and the Centre were preparing a blueprint of the lockdown to combat the looming medical emergency, only a few had an idea of who would be at the forefront of this grave situation, to fight this war.
The article aims to bring forth the challenges being faced by various frontline workers amidst COVID-19 in India. It highlights how these challenges are grinding as many of our frontline workers belong to the sectors that are least invested in India, either in terms of policy, finance or various kinds of infrastructure. The article follows four stories narrated by individuals working in different sectors from both urban and rural India.
Note: The names of the people addressed in the article have been changed for security reasons.
When Niri Shah, now working at a tertiary government hospital in Maharashtra, passed out this year, i.e. 2020, the last thing she expected was to pass out in the time of a pandemic hitting the country in its knees.
With daily duty turning into alternate-days duty, life did not become any easier. Describing the ground conditions, she says,
“I have applied for my transfer to Mumbai as they need doctors there, plus this will at least get me PPE kits while working. The PPE kits provided are the only shield of safety, which are expensive, and in case they get torn, we rarely get a replacement for it.”
She went on to add that “In this situation, the only alternatives available are to keep on using the same kits again or use the HIV kit. HIV kits are not much of an alternative as the materials used to make them would not resist the virus infection, plus it lacks N95 masks and other important components.”
The senior doctors at the hospital are bestowed with the responsibility of working in the COVID-19 ward, while juniors and interns look after other daily ailments being reported including NCDs, maternity and child healthcare cases, and emergency surgeries.
She says that though the junior and intern staff was scheduled to work alternate days to lessen their exposure to the virus, a part of COVID-19 responsibilities is shifting to the interns now. This includes swab testing with 100+ swab tests being done in a day.
As seen, some of the doctors got infected with COVID-19, which created a situation wherein the doctors were refused more testing henceforth. This decision imposes a great danger as denying testing to doctors can lead to a risky situation with other patients getting infected along with the staff that is working forefront. She highlights that like the above issue, many guidelines are not being followed related to the quarantine of COVID-positive patients and the staff, putting many lives at risk.
On the brighter side, many patients are being cured, with 200+ people going back home virus-free. Problems are looming, but the healthcare staff at the hospital is fighting with whatever meagre resources available. Niri says, “Ab kya karein, kaam toh nahi chod sakte na! Someone has to do it.” (What can we do? We can’t leave work! Someone has to do it)
Along with the regular healthcare procedures, the healthcare workers are also tasked with providing correct information related to the disease to the patients, the precautions needed and counsel them, in times when they too are dealing with mentally disturbing situations. The testimonial above brushes through the problems being faced; the situation on-ground is of a larger magnitude hence, too unfathomable to be empathised with.
Moving to Rajasthan where Zubeida Sheikh, the principal of a government school, while narrating her experience, sees a similar lack of security provided to them. Working alongside Asha workers and BLOs, she is responsible for the distribution of food grains in the village and keeping a check on the people quarantined at the school.
She monitors the scenario of the institutional quarantine, which includes keeping a check on the health status of the quarantined people. In case any person has an inkling of being COVID-positive on prima facie, she is responsible for getting them to a healthcare centre.
In a situation where even today, the building the reach of any facility in the rural areas is an easier said than done, Zubeida and the school administration stand as one of the many under-appreciated vanguards against the COVID-19. They transformed their education centre into a quarantine centre by getting beddings from the locals, whose family member have been affected. Earlier cooked food was being provided, but since it’s a tedious task and they had no volunteers to do it, food provided to the people quarantined comes from their own homes in the village in exchange for raw grains.
Like many other places, these people too have been facing problems in terms of security equipment provision. They are not provided with PPE kits; sometimes, a few parts of the PPE kits are delivered irregularly. They are relying on self-made masks, gloves, other protective gears and sanitisation.
As mentioned above, the teachers are the most under-appreciated people as they continue to teach students during the pandemic, while sharing the responsibilities in the battle against the virus with utter determination. They are training themselves to do new things on both the ends—dealing with a new disease as well as imparting education in digitally-possible ways, which is commendable.
Ravi Mathur, an Executive Magistrate in the state of Himachal Pradesh, describes the situation of quarantine centres with the quote, “Institutional quarantine is like adopting kids, their food preferences have to be taken care of, along with their small demands like requirements of extension cords and accessory chargers.”
COVID-19 has jetpacked life for many people, one of them being Ravi Mathur. As the situation demands more manpower than possible from a probationary government official, he has been appointed as a permanent official in a few months. Along with his probationary time, what jetpacked was his service hours, along with that of the groups of people he is working with. They are 24*7.
As an Executive Magistrate, his work is to monitor and inspect various quarantine centres, implementation of Section 144, various guidelines and rules issued and to deal with all security measures from roads and traffic management to issuing e-passes in the district.
Ravi is closely working with the Asha workers in the state, who have proven to be another vanguard against COVID-19. Asha workers are the most hardworking, underpaid and overworked volunteer groups in the country. He says,
“They are the most selfless and motivated group of people that I have come across, you ask them to do anything, whether it be volunteering for traffic management, distribute food or even cook it, they will do it without a single protest. With an income of a mere Rs. 3500, they have been working for more than 12 hours every day; volunteering for all kinds of works that are required to be done without any PPE kits provided to them.“
He says that India is doing comparatively better than other nations, provided we exclude the situation in Maharashtra. He elaborates that the reason for the better performance is citizens’ co-operative attitude. Their understanding of the problem and the acceptance of the lockdown at a short notice is a relief otherwise, it could have been worse.
He further adds on, “The situation is changing though, poor planning, lack of transparency in the monetary transactions and the highly irregular rules formulated keep on changing which are pulling us down. A proper vision of the decisions and its effects are not surmised.”
Despite low income for many and long work hours, these people push themselves to work as it leaves them contented. For Ravi, the thought that his hard work is benefitting many families out there brings him peace along with a hope that someone might be doing similar efforts for his family he is not able to stay with currently.
Where the government cannot reach you, the community reaches you.
Another story comes from Mumbai, the worst-hit city in India, which like many other cities saw some great volunteer work. In one of the suburbs of Mumbai Zubin Khan, along with his team of 30 people, managed to provide packaged food and ration kits to widows, differently-abled, senior citizens and groups of people who did not and could not access the government services.
With the help of the local MLA, Zubin arranged for an e-pass for the team to get across the areas for distribution. The team was very much active till the third phase of lockdown as it was the season of Ramzan and many people were left devoid of food rations and resources in the scorching summer.
Food rations and cooked food was arranged for migrant labourers and people fasting, completely crowd-sourced through donations. The migrant labourer population, being a majority in the area, were fed regularly, but since Shramik trains started and people started moving back to their home states, the group has now slowly come to be less active.
Community participation efforts have always resulted in supporting people that do not have access to government services due to various reasons, be it their exclusion from the policies or cases where services appear on paper but take forever to reach the beneficiaries. Efforts by Zubin and his teammates are a reflection of identifying one’s privilege and extending their resources to others.
As the stages of lockdown proceeded, with some ease and difficulties, these stories bring forth the different scenarios of ground-level conditions and our warriors’ continuous fight against the pandemic, in the backdrop of their problems. Today, in the fifth stage of lockdown, it was necessary to showcase their struggles— they who made our lives easier, while getting stigmatised and lacking appreciation.
It is difficult to not be reliant on others during hard situations, be it financially, physically or mentally. Self-sufficiency is a myth in the absence of resources, to which these stories are testimonials of.