“I felt very scared the first time that I had to work with a positive patient. More than me, my family was scared for me. So that always adds a lot of stress. But then I told myself that people are doing what needs to be done to fight this pandemic. I just need to take full precautions to take care of myself” – Preeti is a staff nurse at the Banda Medical College who is one of the few medical staff taking care of Covid-19 positive patients. As one of the people at the frontline of this battle, she displays a positive outlook that surprises us amongst the doom and gloom that has become the norm.
The world is fighting a pandemic. While some are doing this by staying indoors, thousands of women are stepping out to fight this situation. Women are working closely and overtime with patients and migrant labourers to stop the spread and help control the virus. Working in the medical and sanitisation sectors, these women – many of whose unpaid labour has increased multi-fold, along with their regular work – are also now responsible in the fight against one of the biggest challenges that the world has faced.
The pandemic has foisted them with an almost impossible task: to take care of patients while ensuring that they themselves don’t catch the virus. The hypervigilance of hygiene and sanitisation is needed for those who could potentially come in contact with covid patients.
Preeti, who works the night shift, ensures that she doubly sanitizes herself before entering her home even after sanitizing herself at the ward. There is a constant worry that runs through their day which goes beyond their own personal safety. “We now have proper PPE, we have sanitizers. But it is still very challenging. Because it’s not just for our sake that we have to take full precautions. If we don’t, we can affect other patients in the hospital”, says Neha Sharma, another staff nurse at the Banda Medical College.
Their fears aren’t unfounded. According to this report, almost 600 healthcare workers had tested positive for covid-19 in India at the start of the month. In April, Mumbai’s Wockhardt Hospital was declared a containment zone and was temporarily shut down after 26 nurses were infected with covid-19.
The pandemic has foisted them with an almost impossible task: to take care of patients while ensuring that they themselves don’t catch the virus.
Beyond the hospital, there is a whole army of women workers who are helping keep the pandemic in check. With the migrant population returning home in droves, some on foot, some in trains that they had to catch from overcrowded stations; the probability of the virus reaching the small towns and villages is at an all-time high.
The most effective way of stopping this spread is to become a circuit-breaker; isolating oneself for 14 days, to begin with, monitoring symptoms and reaching out for help if displaying cough, fever or any other symptoms and finally – to maintain social distancing. If symptoms are displayed, then contact tracing is essential to ensure that the same steps are followed by anyone who came in contact with a positive patient. And women are also managing all this essential work.
Aarti, an ASHA worker from Khiriya Latkanju in Lalitpur is tasked with making a list of everyone who is coming in from out of town and sharing that with the authorities. “People who have been sick for a long time – I need to take care of them also. I have to maintain social distancing. I have to put up notices outside the houses of people who have arrived from outside and need to self-isolate. And a lot of people don’t know why they should be doing that, so I educate them about the 14-day quarantine period.”
This comes at a high price. The social stigma of being ‘positive’ has reared its head in the most developed corners of our country. Doctors have been attacked, patients refused entry into their own houses. In the hinterland, the misinformation has resulted in the women workers facing abuse and in some cases, even physical violence.
Lakshmi Devi, an ASHA Sangini from Khiriya Latkanju says that people accuse them of lying, “I have faced violence and abuse. When we go to get the details of anyone who has come from outside of the village, they get aggressive. Some abuse us and even beat us. They accuse us of lying about them being covid positive even though we tell them that this is not just for positive people. We just want to get their travel details, the place where they have come from or whether they have any symptoms. But most abuse us and refuse to give details.”
In the hinterland, misinformation has resulted in the women workers facing abuse and in some cases, even physical violence.
This testimony tracks with other cases of people misbehaving with the medical staff across the country, like the two female doctors in Madhya Pradesh who suffered injuries by a violent crowd on a visit to a locality to trace potential infections. This mistrust extends to sanitation workers who have to wait outside offices until a peon comes and allows them entry. “Sometimes we keep waiting outside the office. Then we have to call them to let us in or then we have to go back after waiting and then they call us over the phone to come again”, says Jaya Kumari, a sanitation worker from Naraini, Banda. “I maintain complete hygiene of washing hands, making sure everything is clean and food is cooked properly. We change clothes frequently and don’t eat from outside vendors. We are doing everything we can”.
The psychological toll of the virus is another aspect that the medical staff is dealing with. Maintaining a positive outlook for the sake of their patients as well as for functioning at full capacity is essential for them. How does one deal with the stress of fighting a pandemic, when one is already physically indisposed while on their periods?
“We are women, so with periods come mood swings and on top of that we have to manage our patients, all of these things together can definitely take a toll. We do get frustrated or irritated but then we make sure we find some balance. We can get stressed, so we listen to music, do something to entertain ourselves. We do meditation sometimes. We also need psychological support to get through this”, says Preeti.
Neha says that every little bit that can brighten a patient’s day helps them to recover faster. One of the older covid-19 patient’s day was made when she let him speak to his family over the phone. ‘It’s these little things that can lift their spirits, so why not?” says Neha, “it’s all about working together. We have to take care of ourselves, of each other and of our patients”.
Co-published with Breakthrough