Neglect of 'corona warriors'

Poor health infrastructure, low rates of testing for COVID-19 and people fearful of self-reporting possible symptoms of the disease, all paint a grim picture of the situation in Haryana.

Published : May 08, 2020 14:14 IST

Thermal screening of commuters being conducted on the border between Chandigarh and Haryana on May 6 in Chandigarh.

Thermal screening of commuters being conducted on the border between Chandigarh and Haryana on May 6 in Chandigarh.

On May 6, Amit Khatri, the Deputy Commissioner of Gurugram in Haryana, issued a letter announcing the acquisition by the State of some private hospitals, their infrastructure, manpower and equipment. He decided on this course of action after the Chief Medical Officer informed him a day earlier that the dedicated COVID-19 hospital in Manesar in the district could not be operationalised and hence alternatives were needed. The order contained the requisitioning of 600 beds spread over six private hospitals in the district.

As of May 6 the State had recorded 555 COVID-19 cases, which included 289 active cases; 260 patients had recovered and six had died. The highest number of cases was reported in Gurugram district followed by Sonipat, Faridabad, Jhajjar, Nuh, Ambala, Palwal, Panchkula, Karnal and Jind. The largest number of active cases was reported in Sonipat district. Gurugram reported its first cases in mid March, on March 14, but it was only more than 45 days and many cases later that the district administration initiated steps to acquire private hospitals. Overall, the percentage of active cases was 55.05 per cent, that is, for every 100 people tested, 55 were found to be infected.

All the areas from where cases have been reported fall in a contiguous belt concentrated primarily in eastern and south-eastern Haryana. These are also the areas that have industrial zones and a relatively dense population compared with the other parts of the State, where there is more agricultural acreage than industrial zones. While this pattern has been noticed in the rest of the country too, the fewer than five confirmed cases in Rohtak district defy logic. Perhaps this is due to very low testing and the stringent lockdown, which has virtually imprisoned people within their homes. While Gurugram accounted for the highest caseload, 17.57 per cent, Sonipat accounted for 13.64 per cent followed by Faridabad with 13.3 per cent. In contrast, Rohtak, considered the political capital of Haryana, accounted for 0.67 per cent of the caseload.

‘Corona warriors’ protest

Self-reporting of possible COVID-19 symptoms has also been low for various reasons, including fear and stigmatisation. The State government was criticised after the Director General of Police issued an order stating that stadiums could be converted into jails if people violated the lockdown. The administration’s handling of the outbreak has been more in terms of enforcing law and order rather than in terms of health care. The police are so overzealous in this task they do not even spare front-line health workers, or corona warriors as they are called.

Two accredited social health activists (ASHAs) were beaten up in the initial days of the lockdown in Sonipat district. Health workers, including doctors, have also been infected with COVID-19, which indicates the lack of sufficient personal protective equipment. Pravesh Kumari, the president of the ASHA union, said: “We are the ones who are the direct interface with people. Our workers face the highest risk of getting infected, but many of us do not have proper protective equipment and sanitisers. I have written several times to the mission director at the National Health Mission in Panchkula, but there has been no response.”

She told Frontline that ASHA workers had been asked to download the ASHA survey application on their phones and feed in the record of the persons and families surveyed each day. When she told the authorities that the majority of workers did not have smartphones, they suggested that the ASHAs borrowed from their neighbours. “Even family members do not lend their phones to one another. The authorities are asking us to borrow from neighbours. What is the point of clapping hands and lighting candles for us corona warriors when we are not given basic facilities or adequate monetary compensation for the arduous work we put in each day?” she said.

The ASHA workers are supposed to continue with their other routine work, such as collecting data for ration cards and mapping tuberculosis cases, as well as report to police checkposts and even grain markets to test for cases of COVID-19. The workers face a lot of hostility when they inquire about the health status of people. “There have to be instructions in writing about the safety measures for our workers, and we also need all the protective equipment when we go on these surveys. The sanitisers we are given hardly last,” she said. There were many times when people had misbehaved with ASHAs, she said. “We have been instructed to get the health details of anyone who has come from outside the State or district or village. When we do that, people do not like it. They are also afraid that they will be quarantined and dumped somewhere,” she said. It was learnt that the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and activists of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan had written to the State government complaining about the assault on ASHA workers. There were at least 10 known cases of such assaults reported in Panchkula, Mewat, Sonipat, Jind, Karnal and Kurukshetra districts.

Communal profiling

The communal profiling of COVID-19 cases had its adverse effects on minorities as well as ASHA workers. After some cases of the disease were reported in Nuh in Mewat, which is mainly populated by Meo Muslims, a mob attacked a family in Bichhore village on April 18. And sections of the media actively promote such communal profiling. Pravesh Kumari narrated how some workers encountered hostility in Mewat as people there feared that they would be jailed on the pretext of quarantining.

She said that the atmosphere had been poisoned so much against the minorities that people generally believed, without any basis, that the cases in the State were because of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi. “This is far from the truth. We know as we are the ones in direct contact with people. Ordinary people are afraid to get themselves tested because they don’t want to be taken away from their families. Besides, the health facilities in government hospitals are bad and do not inspire any confidence,” she said. She narrated two instances when she had taken people to get tested, but only one person was tested and the others were told that the test kits were over. More often than not when ASHAs send patients to get tested, they are sent back untested.

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