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In The Fifth Stage Of Lockdown, The Frontline Workers Speak Up

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

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.

Maharashtra: From A Tertiary Government Hospital

Coronavirus screening
Representational image. A part of their duties now include conducting swab tests for the incoming cases. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

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.

Rajasthan: A Principal Speaks

Quarantine centre
They transformed their education centre into a quarantine centre by getting beddings from the locals, whose family member have been affected.

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.

Himachal Pradesh: The Fight In The Hills

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.

Asha worker taking off a glove.
Representational image. Asha workers are the most hardworking, underpaid and overworked volunteer groups in the country.

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.

Maharashtra: Inside Mumbai

Where the government cannot reach you, the community reaches you.

Volunteers distributing rations to the migrant workers
Representational image. Food rations and cooked food was arranged for migrant labourers and people fasting, completely crowd-sourced through donations.

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.

Lesson Learnt: “Self-Sufficiency Is A Myth”

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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