COVID-19 Update

COVID-19 in Delhi: Health workers protest against non-payment of wages, poor working conditions

Print edition :

AIIMS nurses during a sit-in protest demanding improvement in working conditions, in New Delhi on June 4. Their demands included implementation of a uniform four-hour shift with personal protective equipment in COVID-19 areas of the hospital. Photo: PTI

Health care personnel and workers from other sectors protest against non-payment of wages and poor working conditions, but the AAP and the BJP keep blaming each other instead of resolving crucial issues.

On September 14, nurses at Kasturba Hospital in Delhi went on a two-hour strike over non-payment of salaries since May. The hospital is one of the six operating under the North Delhi Municipal Corporation or the North DMC.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are engaged in a perpetual blame game over who is responsible for this state of affairs. The AAP government has been shirking responsibility by stating that the civic bodies of Delhi—the North DMC, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) and the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC)—are under the BJP’s control, while the North DMC has cited non-disbursal of funds by the AAP government in Delhi as the cause of the problem.

In July, the Delhi High Court stepped in to remedy the situation and directed the North DMC to pay the resident doctors of Hindu Rao and Kasturba hospitals, Rajendra Babu Institute of Pulmonary Medicine and Tuberculosis, Maharishi Valmiki Infectious Diseases Hospital, Mrs Girdhar Lal Maternity Hospital and Balak Ram Hospital. The court also directed the Delhi government to disburse Rs.8 crore to the North DMC for this purpose.

Multiple strikes

This is not the first strike by government employees in Delhi in recent months. During the pandemic, health care workers, drivers, teachers and others have repeatedly gone on strike over non-payment of dues and poor working conditions. Their protests did not receive much attention and were brushed under the carpet by the government authorities as well as the media.

In August, around 8,000 teachers of the North DMC threatened to go on strike if they were not paid their salaries soon. Along with some staff of the SDMC and the EDMC, the North DMC staff had not received their salaries since May. The North DMC pleaded a lack of funds saying its income resources had dried up under the lockdown. In June, the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) asked the North DMC, the Delhi government and other civic bodies to disburse the salaries of the teachers, after which they received their April salaries.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Nurses Union went on a strike in June over poor working conditions. With several healthcare workers in the premier institute testing positive for COVID-19, the nurses’ union demanded a uniform four-hour shift with personal protective equipment (PPE) in COVID-19 zones of the hospital, a uniform rotation policy between COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 zones and demarcation of proper donning and doffing areas.

The strike was called off after nine days when the AIIMS administration agreed to their demands such as six-hour shifts in COVID-19 zones inclusive of the time required for donning/doffing of PPE and handover/takeover in the wards of the nursing staff. The AIIMS standing finance committee agreed to revise the allowances of the faculty and senior administrative staff but not the pay of Grade 3 and 4 staff consisting of technicians, paramedics and operation theatre staff. Agitated, they threatened to go on strike if their pay was not revised.

Private hospitals of Delhi too faced the ire of their nursing staff, with mass resignations over non-availability of PPE kits, N95 masks and long working hours. When nurses at Primus Super Specialty Hospital demanded a higher day wage, the hospital administration threatened to file police cases against them for “abandoning” patients and “not joining COVID-19 emergency duty”. Delhi Heart & Lung Institute and Sir Ganga Ram and Saroj Super Specialty hospitals are some of the other private players that faced a staff crunch.

Around 6,000 ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers of Delhi went on strike in July seeking better safety gear and proper wages. These workers are the frontline COVID-19 staff who go from house to house to conduct surveys and visit patients who are in home quarantine. In August, when some of them protested at Jantar Mantar, the police charged them with violating physical distancing norms.

In early September, when Metro rail services were yet to restart in the Capital, taxis operated by private cab aggregators such as Ola and Uber were one of the important modes of travel throughout the city. But some drivers working with Ola and Uber went on strike demanding an increase in fares and sought an extension of the moratorium on payment of equated monthly instalments until December. The banks had begun to pressure the drivers to repay their loans once the moratorium ended.

With the annual dengue season knocking on the doors of the city, hospital workers of Delhi are now dealing with the dual crisis of patients who had contracted both COVID-19 and dengue.

Second wave fears

The number of COVID-19 cases in Delhi rose alarmingly in September, triggering fears of a second wave. The Capital recorded over 4,000 cases on five consecutive days and the number of active cases almost doubled from 14,626 on August 31 to 28,641 on September 14. In this period, the containment zones in Delhi increased by over 82 per cent to 1,517. Amid reports of shortage of hospital beds, the Delhi government ordered 33 big private hospitals to reserve 80 per cent of their intensive care unit (ICU) beds for COVID-19 patients.

Health Minister Satyendar Jain said: “We have also instructed hospitals to increase bed strength by 30 per cent for coronavirus patients, in case they want to. More than 50 per cent of the beds are available in hospitals. Out of the total 14,372 beds available for COVID-19 patients, 7,938 are vacant, according to live status on the Delhi Corona app.” Earlier, the Minister had tested positive for COVID-19 and recovered in July. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and BJP Delhi president Adesh Gupta are among other politicians who tested positive for the virus.

On September 14, Delhi recorded 3,229 COVID-19 cases, taking the tally to over 2.21 lakh, while the number of deaths mounted to 4,770. Despite the runaway surge in infections, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal downplayed the situation and instead made boastful claims of Delhi conducting the highest number of COVID-19 tests and having the lowest death rate in the world. The Delhi government, which promised that there would not be another lockdown, has started Metro rail services and allowed gyms to reopen.

The total number of cases in Delhi as on September 15 stood at 2,25,796, with 4,806 deaths. Taking note of the high numbers, a Division Bench of Justices Hima Kohli and Subramonium Prasad ruled that Delhi residents did not need a doctor’s prescription for a RT-PCR test but Aadhaar would still be mandatory to prove that they are residents of Delhi. The court also directed the Delhi government to ramp up the mobile van facilities for testing so that at least four vans were stationed in each of Delhi’s 11 districts.

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