Dr Suruchi Desai is a front-line health worker who is battling the COVID-19, risking her life every day. She is the senior obstetrician and gynaecologist based out of Mumbai who is one of the first private hospital doctors to deliver COVID-19 positive mother. She is a hero no doubt but when she looks at ground realities, she doesn’t feel like one at all. Despite the efforts to do everything for patients, she is facing a cash crunch because of the decreased wages. What’s worrying her more, is how doctors like her are still being harassed because they meet COVID patients and come close quarters to the virus. In Delhi too, health workers like her are facing similar experiences. This is India where nurses and doctors are done with the claps, now want salary, support and respect.

In contrast, in Canada health-workers are being hailed as heroes and getting all the attention from the government for their selfless work.  Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a raise in the daily wages of the essential workers saying, “If you are risking your health to keep this country moving and you’re making minimum wage, you deserve a raise.” The decision was welcomed by all the essential workers as a hope amid the gloom of the pandemic.

The question to ask is why has ndia stopped at showering flowers and banging utensils to support the essential workers battling against COVID-19 in the country? Is that all India can do for those who are risking their lives to protect us and keep the country moving?  Don’t they deserve a raise in their pay so that their families can be fed well? While we all are protected in our houses, shouldn’t the essential workers outside be provided with the best safety equipment? Far from a raise in salary or better safety, here in India, health-workers are being asked to take a pay cut.

In Delhi, after working for 12 years, Ambika PK a nurse in Delhi’s Kalra hospital and a frontline worker succumbed to COVID-19. Her death has triggered the conversation around the alleged negligence of the authorities to ensure the safety of the frontline workers. The nurses who worked with her have alleged that Ambika and other nurses at the Kalra hospital were being forced to reuse their PPE kits for the past two months while the doctors were provided with the fresh ones. Instead of an N-95 mask, they were asked to use the washable cloth mask. In fact, Ambika was being charged money in exchange for a mask. In response to Ambika’s untimely death, many nurses have raised their voice in protest against the negligent authorities. They have refused to go to hospitals and treat the COVID-19 patients until there is a proper availability of the safety kits. What is the use of claps and flowers if we can’t even provide them with a proper mask? Why are we waiting for nurses and doctors to lose this unfair battle against COVID-19 to realise that their safety is our biggest hope to win over the pandemic? They are risking their lives every day for our safety. Is it too much to at least provide them with proper safety kits?

SheThePeople reached out to some of the essential workers across the country who told us how they are dealing with the salary cuts and why governments at centre and state must take cognizance of this.

Could The Cut In Wages Be Avoided?

Most of the essential workers’ wages have been cut down to compensate for the economic crisis that the country is undergoing amidst the pandemic.“We are like a daily wage earner. Initially, we did not know how the how we will deal with the situation so we had less work to do. Now that we are able to recover the infected people, patients are scared to come. So eventually, our wages have been impacted,” said Dr Suruchi Desai, who works at the Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai, about the financial crisis the health workers in India are going through.

But was there a way to deal with the crisis without snipping their salaries if not providing a raise? Dr K.P. Singh, an Eye doctor at AIIMS, Delhi said, “Considering the present economic situation, giving a raise in the salary would be difficult. But, cutting down our salaries was not the right decision.” Similarly, Rakesh Sharma, who is working in the Delhi Transport Department received his salary after a pay cut. Though this hasn’t caused much hassle in his life, he believes that better support is required from the government. He said that the clapping and flower showering are all good efforts to establish solidarity. But, it is in no way helping frontline workers or COVID-19 patients.

Also Read: COVID-19: Mumbai Mayor Returns To Work As A Nurse After 18 Years

Affected Lives of The Families of Essential Workers

An essential worker too has a family to feed. The pressure to feed their families with the reduced income is only worsening the trouble essential workers go through every day. Ghanshyam Yadav, a retired army officer who is back on the duty due to the urgency of the pandemic, currently posted in Safdarjung Hospital, said, “Being a migrant from Bihar settled in Delhi, it is hard to cope up with the salary cut. I have a family to feed and rents to pay. Besides, the price of almost everything has seen a hike during the lockdown which is adding to the economic challenge my family is going through.” Similarly, Harpal Singh, a pharmacist in AIIMS, Ballabgarh, who lives on campus there said, “ The decrement in salary and the further reduction in terms of House Rent Allowances is making it difficult for me to manage other expenses.”

What Do Essential Workers Expect From The Government?

As the fight against the coronavirus pandemic is going to be long-lasting, we need to make sure that all the essential workers are protected and provided for.

  1. Need To Increase The Salary Of The Frontline Workers

Ghanshyam Yadav says “The salary increment was needed as it would have boosted the confidence of the security staff, the ward boys and the policemen who have been appointed on ground duty.”

The need to work amidst the unusual condition of lockdown and economic crisis has brought a drastic change in the lifestyle is adding to their financial difficulties. Preeti Singh, a nurse in Batra Hospital, Delhi, hasn’t faced a reduction in her wages.  But, because of the unavailability of public transport and the hike in fuel prices, most of her salary is consumed in travelling in her private vehicle. That’s why she believes that a raise in salary could have made it easier for her to manage.

In addition to the need to increase the salary, Dr Desai said, “There is also a need to tell people that the virus will last till we have developed a vaccine for it. They need to be educated about social distancing, using masks and should be told that just by entering into a COVID-19 hospital they won’t get infected. If people are aware of this, they won’t be scared to come to the hospital before they are critically ill.” Doing this can control the COVID-19 death rate in the country, she says.

2. Proper Availability Of Safety Kits

Besides the salary, it is equally important that the essential workers should be provided with the proper safety equipment to ensure the safety of their own lives and of the families. But, the reported shortage in PPEs, masks and gloves is frightening and unfair for those who are selflessly standing on the frontline in this battle against COVID-19. So has the govt. provided for the shortage? Dr K.P. Singh, Harpal Singh and Dr Desai are satisfied with enough availability of the safety kits. However Rakesh Sharma said, “As safety equipment, we have been provided with masks and one bottle of sanitizer for each team. However, the masks aren’t of good quality.” Moreover, Ghanshyam Yadav said that the government  could’ve done better in providing them with the proper safety equipment. “The health care workers who are risking their lives are facing acute shortage of safety kits. It should be made available by the government in abundance and as early as possible, “added Dr Shivani Goel, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at the Civil Hospital Bathinda in Punjab.

Also Read: Dr Breen’s Suicide: Let’s Talk About Health Care Workers’ Mental Health

3. Protection From Harassment 

Besides the lack of financial and health security, there have been cases of harassment of nurses and doctors attending to COVID-19 patients.  Why is the safety of women or any health worker still not of the paramount importance? “Attacking your doctors is not going to help you in any way. There has to be a complete stringent law against the harassment. No military person goes out to save the country without any ammunition and back-up. So aren’t we the army right now?” said Dr Suruchi. “The government should tell people that social distancing and following the guidelines of the hospitals is the new normal. The onus of saving the patient is not only on the doctors. The patient should also follow the guidelines,” she added. Nurse Preeti Singh also spoke about the importance of the safety of women health workers, “Even if the government isn’t providing a raise in the salary, it should ensure that the women essential workers are safe from harassment. As a nurse, I should be provided with a cab that can safely take me to the hospital and back. Besides, if there are no actions taken against these  cases of harassment, I would naturally be afraid to go and attend.”

4. Testing Kits Should  Be Affordable

In addition to the safety, Dr Goel said, “We should be testing more and the testing kits should be made available at affordable prices in all the government and private setups. But it should also be taken into consideration that kits don’t overwhelm the lab itself and become a carrier of the infection. Also, the lab workers and all the workers who are taking the samples should be provided with safety kits.” “There is an urgent call for revitalizing primary health care to strengthen our research system so that some vaccine or adequate cure is available for this deadly and contagious disease,” she added.

5. Proper Insurance Policies,  Allowances For Their Families

Furthermore, to ease the struggle of the front-line workers they should be provided with special allowances and insurances.  Dr Desai said, “The cost of one testing kit is so high, what are you charging extra for? Are the frontline workers getting any rebate or allowances? Will our children be getting free education? No. So if a person dies doing a COVID-19 duty, are you all going to give them some privileges?”

Stressing further on the need of right insurances and policies that should be provided to the frontline workers by the government as soon as possible, Dr Goel said, “The govt should provide mandatory health insurances to all the front line workers. Also their spouses, their family members should benefit from some govt policies. The essential workers who are not insured, they need to be enrolled along with their family members so that all the bills whether it be testing, hospital care or future vaccination are reimbursed. There should be a salary hike for all the essential workers. If any health worker is diagnosed with Coronavirus, they should be given claims under the health insurance cover scheme”

Also Read: Discrimination Against Doctors: Why Has COVID-19 Turned Us Hostile?

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