Paramedical staff, including drivers and pharmacists on emergency ambulance duty in the city, state that they have to pick up suspected COVID-19 cases, often positive cases even, in the same ambulance van in which they carry patients with non-Covid medical emergencies. “Often we have to pick up new mothers and their newborn baby and if we get a call about a COVID suspect, we have to go there too because the rapid response team does not reach in time,” says a pharmacist posted on ambulance duty.
There are six ambulances divided across six zones in the UT which can be contacted for medical emergencies using the number “112”. Though these ambulances primarily dedicate themselves for non-COVID medical emergencies, such as picking up pregnant women, cardiac patients and trauma patients. However, ever since the lockdown began, they have been receiving calls from suspected and potentially confirmed positive COVID-19 cases.
“There is the rapid response team from GMSH-16 which has to attend to COVID-19 calls and reach the location, but it takes so long that people keep asking us to take them. We cannot say no because if we leave them to wait and some complication arises, it will be on us,” says a paramedical staff member stationed in an ambulance placed in Sector 38.
3,000 calls in a month
Usually, around 500 calls are received by ambulance staff across the six zones in total in the span of a month. In the month of April, the ambulances attended a total of 3,000 calls, each zone receiving around 500 calls each. Since many of these are calls made by residents who believe they or their neighbours might have COVID-19, the staffers usually go to the spot and refer them to the helpline for the rapid response team. “We are not prepared to handle COVID patients, we didn’t even get PPE kits until two days ago, so we were all exposed,” says a pharmacist posted on ambulance duty at the sealed hotspot of Bapu Dham Colony, where 76 COVID-19 patients have been diagnosed as of Thursday evening.
Since the colony has become an epicentre of the disease for the city now, with the majority of patients diagnosed from there, one ambulance has been completely dedicated to catering to the population in the colony. The ambulance has been ferrying many young and expecting mothers to nearby hospitals every day. However, the ambulance staff is also compelled to ferry COVID-19 suspects and patients, as staff members fear residents will turn violent if they refuse to carry them. “We don’t have thermal scanners with which to screen these patients we encounter. We have to maintain distance and cannot even use a thermometer these days for fear of infection. Yet we pick them up even if there is no emergency because we are worried about residents turning violent if we refuse their demands,” says the pharmacist posted on ambulance duty in the colony.
Indeed, since most of the residents in Bapu Dham Colony have been packed like sardines with their large families in cramped apartments since the colony was sealed, there is fear of mass resentment and mob violence, due to which police forces have been guarding each street in the sealed colony. “They should at least give us thermal scanners and place some police officials with us in the van, because residents have been quite aggressive with us. They are going a little crazy cooped up in one room,” says the pharmacist posted at the colony.
Low pay disillusions paramedical staff
Beyond the long hours of duty, exposing themselves, their families and other patients to COVID-19, paramedical staff on ambulance duty are disillusioned with the authorities due to a low salary. Most of them are contractual workers under the National Health Mission, where pharmacists receive a salary of Rs 12,000 per month and drivers receive Rs 10,000 per month. Their counterparts employed as permanent staffers receive much higher salaries, with pharmacists getting up to Rs 50,000 per month and ambulance drivers getting Rs 40,000. “At least in such times, they should ensure we get some incentives in the form of financial security or at least safety in terms of high-quality PPE kits and a thermal scanner,” says the pharmacist from Sector 38. Health authorities were not available for comment.
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