Unseen Warriors of COVID: 'Death and grief has made us numb,' say Aligarh's overworked frontline workers
A large number of deaths and the atmosphere of helplessness around have also affected the doctors significantly, making them numb sometimes, or a soft target for the angry patients and their kin at other times
Editor's note: As the second wave of coronavirus infections ravages parts of India, millions of front-line workers and citizens are caught up in the middle, providing their services to distressed families on one hand while trying to cope themselves on the other. This is part seven of a series profiling the stories of these people.
Aligarh: As a second wave overwhelms India's creaking healthcare system, the brunt of the tragedy and trauma around is mostly being borne by the frontline workers, whether or not the governments recognise them as such. The struggles of doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, cremation and cemetery employees, and other healthcare support providers, are quite visible in Uttar Pradesh's Aligarh, a city that caters to the health needs of several nearby districts of Western Uttar Pradesh.
With a steady rise in the COVID cases, the city is reporting an average of more than three hundred new cases daily. According to the official data, the total number of cases has reached 2,634 and deaths 99. However, the actual count of casualties on the ground is alleged to be far higher.
With the incessant spike in cases coupled with an acute shortage of oxygen and other resources, the healthcare workers are both overworked and under acute stress in the district. Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital (JNMCH), a premier medical institute in Western Uttar Pradesh, is going through an unprecedented challenge.
Pointing out at the narrow gallery in the triage, Dr Aquib Farooqui of the JNMCH said, "You are seeing this emergency triage area, with space visible to walk. A few days ago, this was jam-packed. All this space was filled with stretchers and wheelchairs only a few days ago, with patients bringing their own oxygen support. The other ICUs and Surgery wards with oxygen ports were also completely occupied."
The gallery is now clear, but that’s because the hospital has reduced the intake of patients due to lack of resources, not because the second wave has begun to subside.
On being asked if they had an adequate healthcare workforce to deal with the current covid crisis, Dr Hasan Shamsi, JNMCH, told us about the difficulties they faced. "We didn’t have (an adequate workforce), initially. The CMO and other officials from different departments helped in getting doctors from different departments to pitch in for the COVID task force duties.”
A large number of deaths and the atmosphere of helplessness and grief around have also affected the doctors significantly, making them numb sometimes, or a soft target for the angry patients and their kin at other times. "We have become numb. This (COVID crisis) affects us somehow.” Dr Mohd Kashif, President, Resident Doctors Association, JNMC said.
"During this crisis, doctors all over the world are facing not just mental stress, but are also dealing with physical, social, and financial burdens. Right now, residents of three of our primary departments, TBRD, Mimedicine, and Paediatrics, are taking double shifts, and working like labourers to help patients. They get to sleep only for two or three hours a day. And despite all of this, they are not only handling patients’ treatment but also their anger. The questions that should have been asked to the government are being posed to doctors'."
Being overworked isn’t the only sacrifice the healthcare workers are making. Since they are in close contact with confirmed and suspected COVID patients, they are likely to be infected too. Dr Farooqui confirmed that a good number of resident doctors have tested positive, though all of them are recovering.
The fear and the possible guilt of transmitting the COVID infection to their family members back home looms large. "The situation is worse for people who have homes here in Aligarh. I’ve been dealing with COVID patients every day. Tomorrow is Eid. In a normal situation, I would have been at home. But I’m constantly in contact with COVID patients; hence I’m not going home so that my family is not punished because of my work.” Dr Farooqui said.
"But the local doctors, who need to return to their homes every day, have a huge challenge and test of patience to protect their families”, he added.
Besides the doctors, the cemetery workers, cleaners, nurses, sanitation workers, hospital guards, and even bankers are fulfilling the needs and expectations of society at every turn, with no security net to protect them.
A graveyard employee, who works on daily wages, told us on the condition of anonymity, "I do not get PPE kits or other equipment easily. Whenever a janaaza (a procession for a funeral) comes, if they are kind, they give me masks."
Another sanitation worker, Banke Lal, was busy sanitizing the premises of the Aligarh Railway Station, without any mask or protective layering. Upon asking if he would like to talk or complain about it, he simply said, "Sir, I would lose my job, and I need it."
Speaking on the crisis concerning lack of care towards frontline workers, another issue is that of acknowledgement and recognition. Anil Kumar, a banker at Bank of Baroda said, “The bankers have constantly fulfilled their duty this year as well as last year. All branches are open, all functionalities are happening. Bankers are frontline workers in that sense. Yet, we are not treated as such."
"We work all the time, we have helped in this crisis,” Kumar insisted. He said that three workers at his branch, including the branch manager, have tested positive but the branch is still managing to function despite being understaffed at the moment. Being in touch with a large number of people, the banking staff also get news of several of its customers succumbing to COVID. This is something that also disturbs them mentally.
Despite the best efforts of the frontline workers, the pandemic is still a very real nightmare in Aligarh. Patients are desperately searching for oxygen cylinders, life-saving drugs, and hospital beds. Attendants are ferrying their loved ones on wheelchairs and stretchers, in the hope of bringing them back to health. And in some extreme cases, they are waiting outside a hospital, in the hopes of obtaining an oxygen cylinder, so that their loved ones can be admitted and then treated.
A young patient’s father, standing outside JNMCH says, “We’ve come all the way from Kasganj. We can’t even get a bed. They are not taking my son to a bed without us arranging for an oxygen cylinder. He’s 17 years old, only 17 years old. "
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Frontline and healthcare workers were assigned additional duties to help manage the public health emergency. But while the number of tasks expected of ASHAs kept increasing, the protective gear dwindled