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Indian Express Stories of Strength

Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.

Making a connection: The young paramedics of Assam who are on call to answer your Covid-19 queries, 24/7

Around the country, dedicated Covid-19 helplines have sprung into action to field questions related to the pandemic. In one such centre in Assam, here is how young paramedics keep the conversation going, one phone call at a time.

April 28, 2020 11:03:45 am

GUWAHATI: “How may I help you?” she calmly asks countless times a day, her voice betraying no trace of the anxiety she feels from time to time. Her two-year-old is at home, and every morning when she steps out, she knows it is a risk she has to take. But at work, 27-year-old Rituparna Hazarika, has her game face on, complete with a headset, a microphone, and a smile.

“I used to get nervous in the beginning — what if I didn’t know the answer,” says Hazarika, who was trained as an ANM (Auxillary Nursery Midwifery) nurse. A few weeks and hundreds of calls later, though, even the most oddball questions don’t fluster her. “Someone asked me to recharge their TV last month,” she recalls with a laugh. And many times, she picks up a call only to hear someone burst into a song on the other end.

“I then calmly explain that this is a health helpline, and I am there to sort out any medical query they might have,” says Hazarika.

At the Sarathi 104 helpline centre, run by the Piramal Swasthya group in partnership with the Government of Assam and National Health Mission (NHM), there are around 90 like Hazarika — young paramedics and counsellors, who are working round-the-clock to answer Covid-19 medical queries from across Assam. This isn’t the only one — in states across the country, helplines have sprung into action since the outbreak. In Assam, which reported its first COVID-19 case only on March 31, the helpline saw its busiest day on April 2, when it received a record number of 9,000 calls on a single day.

‘BE COOL’

As another listless lockdown afternoon crept up in Guwahati, it was business as usual at the Sarathi helpline centre. Set up in 2010, the helpline functions as a medical information facility, fielding a plethora of health-related queries from across the state. But when the pandemic took over in March, it turned into a dedicated coronavirus query facility.
A release from the Piramal Swasthya group said the centre attended over 2,60,526 incoming calls just till April 24. Over 80% of these calls are COVID-19-related.

The first spike in calls — in the beginning of April — a lot to do with an Assam government appeal asking public to report themselves or anyone else they might suspect to have had travel history outside the state.

Bhargavjyoti Kalita, a 26-year-old physiotherapy graduate and an employee at the centre, answers about 250 a day. “Maximum calls are from rural areas,” says Kalita, sitting in another bay, on another computer, at a safe ‘social’ distance from where Hazarika, or any other colleague, sits. Their work stations are disinfected frequently — with hand sanitisers propped up in different, conspicuous spots.

Barely two hours into his shift, Kalita is already swamped with calls. With five minutes to spare, he quickly explains: “Many calls are from villagers who want to report people who have just returned to the village. They beg us not to reveal their names. ‘Otherwise we will get into trouble’ they tell me,” says Kalita. The other day someone called to complain that kids in the village were playing cricket.

In all these instances, Kalita would send these messages to the floor head, who in turn would alert the authorities higher up — finally, this translates to action on the ground, hundreds of kilometres away from the call centre Kalita first received the complaint.

Then there are the aggressive callers. “Suppose someone asked for something, and it has not reached them for some reason, they start shouting ‘what kind of helpline are you?’ Sometimes they will just say ‘nonsense’ and hang up,” says Kalita

In these occasions, the staff members know better than to react. One of the most important takeaways from training sessions for COVID-19 calls is a resolve to remember to ‘be cool’, no matter what. “This is a toll-free number, not everyone who calls is educated,” explains Kalita, “We understand it is a trying time and they are frustrated, they do not necessarily understand what is happening.”

The Sarathi 104 helpline centre, run by the Piramal Swasthya group in partnership with the Government of Assam and National Health Mission, have around 90 young paramedics and counsellors. Express Photo by Tora Agarwala

DUTY TOWARDS HUMANKIND

The team, which works out of a three-storeyed building in the heart of Guwahati, is also responsible for outbound calls. “It is mostly to check-up on people who are under home quarantine,” says Pomi Baruah, Nodal Officer, 104 Helpline. When Baruah was brought on board in mid-March, she saw that the team already had their hands full. “So, we decided to mobilise a group of people who weren’t attending office, but sitting at home with their laptops,” she says, “They are volunteers, aware citizens, who now go through lists of names and numbers, follow up on their quarantine status, check on their well-being etc.”

Preempting the need, Piramal Swasthya ramped up the strength of the team. “We do not want to pressure our team — there is a limit to how much one person can speak,” says Hardeep Singh Bambrah, Head, Piramal Swasthya – Assam and North East, “So we increased the number of people taking the calls. Now we have more than 90 people on the job.” By the third week of April, this number is at 200, including volunteers. The network has now branched out to a number of other initiatives: an outreach care program to aid cancer, heart surgery, kidney and liver transplant patients who are stranded outside Assam, a doorstep medicine delivery for senior citizens in Assam, and a full-fledged team to specifically address mental health queries has been formed.

“Many people who tested negative, and are now under home quarantine, keep imagining they have symptoms,” says Syed Mohaidul Haque, another counsellor with 104. “They watch the news, they get agitated, they fear they will be taken away. These anxieties are common and we guide them as to how to deal with it. It is a bad time, and we tell them how important it is to remain optimistic for themselves, and for those around them.”

It is something the young paramedics at the call centre try and remember too. While Haque has been with 104 since 2016, the physiotherapy graduate Kalita only joined last year when he saw an advertisement in the paper about the job. But now, every morning, when he comes into work, through the empty city roads, he says he hardly considers it a “job”. “It’s really a service to humankind.”

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