Nipah Virus: Kerala's ad-hoc health workers who risked life to save patients, on hunger strike since 13 days for regularisation of jobs

Even as the medical community in Kerala is busy battling the second Nipah outbreak in the state's commercial capital of Ernakulam, 47 temporary workers who helped the health department in successfully fighting the first outbreak in Kozhikode are now waging a long and tough battle for their livelihood.

The deadly virus surfaced in Kerala for the first time in May last year after a 28-year-old youth from Perambara town in Kozhikode district contracted it from a fruit bitten by a fruit bat. The outbreak which claimed 17 lives in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts was contained after a united battle by health, civil and political workers for two months.

The 47 temporary workers were recruited by the health department after the regular staff at the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital refused to handle the Nipah patients. Their main attraction was the permanent jobs promised by the authorities in the hospital. However, the authorities seem to have forgotten the health warriors, who risked their own lives for saving the lives of hundreds of people who were admitted in the hospital.

After a token strike for two weeks in January, the workers have launched an indefinite hunger strike in front of the medical college hospital from 27 May demanding fulfillment of the promises given by the state government and the hospital authorities.  They have threatened to shift the venue of the agitation to the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram if the authorities continued to neglect their demand.

 Nipah Virus: Keralas ad-hoc health workers who risked life to save patients, on hunger strike since 13 days for regularisation of jobs

Health workers carry the fruit eating bat that was caught by the expert group, for the study of the spread of Nipah Virus at Perambra in Kozhikode on Wednesday, May 30 2018. When regular workers had refused to work with Nipah patients, it was the temporary health workers who risked life to  PTI

The first strike in January was withdrawn after the medical college authorities promised permanent jobs for 22 of the former temporary staff and the remaining as and when vacancies arise in the future. Leaders of the agitators said the authorities had failed to act on their promise, forcing them to resort to the fresh agitation.

C Mini, convenor of the temporary staff action council, said that the regular staff had refused to work in the Nipah isolation ward due to fear of the virus. “We also had such fears. We decided to risk our lives as we were assured of permanent jobs,” she said adding that the college authorities and the government had forgotten them after containing the epidemic.

The hospital authorities were forced to look for people from outside after a section of the regular staff went on mass leave following the death of the first batch of the patients at the hospital. Advertisements for government jobs used to elicit massive response in Kerala but in this case only 12 people applied for the job.

They were appointed on the spot and asked to join duty at the Nipah ward immediately. Thirty five more joined them later. The temporary staff included seven staff nurse, five nursing assistants and 30 cleaning staff. Most of them worked day and night some even without protective gears in the initial days taking personal care of the patients, cleaning ward, disposing bio-waste and handling dead bodies for nearly two months.

The temporary staff’s hope of getting permanent government job got a boost when Health Minister KK Shylaja promised to reward them for the exemplary service rendered by them at a function organized to felicitate the Nipah heroes after containing the epidemic.

“We thought the extension given to us after the first 89 days was to complete the official procedures for regularizing our services. We were even asked to produce our identity proof and other documents ahead of regularizing our services but on the contrary it was terminated on 15 November,” said E P Rajesh, chairman of the action council.

The Health Department extended the services till December 31 following widespread protests. Though it was promised that their jobs would be protected, their services were terminated again on December 31 much to the chagrin of the temporary workers.

The hospital authorities have been citing a Supreme Court judgment which prohibits regularization of contract employees. Dr Sajith Kumar, superintendent of the medical college hospital, said that they had tried to regualarise the service of the temporary staff but desisted from it after it was pointed out that it would be a violation of the apex court verdict.

The hunger strike that entered the 13th day on Saturday has been receiving support from various quarters. Senior leaders of the Congresss-led opposition United Democratic Frront (UDF), including the newly elected Kozhikode MP MK Raghavan joined the strike this week.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala discussed the issue with the Health Minister and urged her to give special consideration to the temporary workers as they had risked their lives in the service of the patients.

The minister said that the existing law did not permit the government to regularize the services of contract employees. She said that the government, however, would protect the jobs of the workers by renewing their contracts periodically.

Shyalaja said that she had given a direction to the medical college principal to take steps to renew the contracts of all temporary workers who had worked in the Nipah isolation ward during the outbreak of the virus.

However, the agitating former temporary workers say that the government could overcome the legal obstacles on compassionate grounds.  The refusal by the government to invoke this provision shows it has no compassion for those who have risked their lives and rendered a yeoman service, says Dinesh Perumanna, a leader of the action council.

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Updated Date: Jun 10, 2019 09:21:49 IST