Updated: May 4, 2020 12:45:42 am
50 paise per sample for testing iodine in salt (Rs 25 for 50 samples a month), Re 1 for selling one ORS packet, Rs 15 for preparing one blood slide for malaria testing, Rs 20 for getting a newborn registered and Rs 150 for staying overnight with a pregnant women — this is how nearly 28,000 women registered as ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers in Punjab earn Rs 1,500-2,000 in a month as incentives for a list of fifty-odd approved works. Now, at the frontlines of the Covid war without proper safety gear, these lowest-paid healthcare workers wonder why they have been risking it all despite the state refusing to watch out for them.
The question is more pronounced in the minds of four ASHAs who tested coronavirus positive in Moga Saturday.
Among the four, now in isolation at the Moga Civil Hospital, is a 36-year-old who calls her job of 10 years as ASHA worker “thankless”, and rues not listening to her family and sitting at“I want to say to all ASHA workers that they should stop doing this work and sit at their homes. Why should we put our lives in danger? They did not even provide us mask, gloves as we went door to door. We used to wash our hands every few minutes, took all precautions, but failed to protect ourselves,” she says, adding despite speaking to her husband, a truck driver, and her children (a daughter aged 14 and a son 13) multiple times over video-call, she hasn’t had the courage to tell them that she has tested positive.
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The 36-year-old was among the ASHAs who undertook door-to-door screening in Moga to look for suspected COVID-19 patients.
The outfit representing her and other ASHA workers in the state agrees that they have been left to fend for themselves.
The ASHA Facilitators and Workers Union will now be submitting a memorandum on Monday to NHM Director at Mohali to demand better pay and safety gear from the government, said the union’s state president Kirandeep Kaur. “Health minister has communicated today that our demands will be taken up at the Cabinet meeting. If they still aren’t taken up, then we may announce strike for May 7,” she said.
According to the Health Department orders, each ASHA worker in Punjab was ordered to visit at least 25 homes a day to screen suspected patients in both rural and urban areas. Since they do not get any fixed salary, an incentive of Rs 1,000 each month (April to June) was announced for them. The government is yet to give them their incentive for April.
ASHA facilitator, Sikander Kaur, with whom the four coronavirus positive ASHA were attached, said, “I had met one of them. I have 20 ASHA workers and population of 22,000 under me. So we were all in touch. Now, around 80 health workers, including me, are quarantined and samples have been collected. ASHA workers of Dhudi Ke village were also in touch with positive ASHA workers. They were conducting survey in Dhudi Ke and now villagers have been calling them to ask if they should also get tested as they met them. We have stopped survey in our area.”
Kirandeep Kaur, ASHA workers union president, alleges that the workers who have been found positive were tested accidently. “These six were tested because Dhudi Ke block was falling short of samples to meet target of 30 samples. So they included ASHA workers just to complete target and results have now shocked the health department. From the first day when ASHA workers started going door to door, we have been begging for masks and gloves but no one listens. Some social workers/NGOs provided masks/gloves in some area, but not government. We do not get any salary and incentive of Rs 1,000 announced for coronavirus screening hasn’t been credited yet for April month,” she said
An office-bearer of the union, who did not wish to be named, said: “When the first Nanded returnee tested positive at Sur Singh Village of Taran Taran, administration decided to conduct quick survey of village. ASHA workers from other parts of the district were asked to report at Sur Singh. But we were not given any transport to reach the village. No public transport was available. So we hired a motorbike-cart to reach the village. When police stopped us and we called our senior, he refused to help, but said we must reach the village at every cost.”
About the same survey, another ASHA worker added that there were announcements made from the gurdwara to not let ASHA workers inside the village.
Kirandeep Kaur added: “In Ferozepur, an ASHA worker was slapped, while in Malerkotla and Patiala abuses were hurled at them during screening drive. No government has ever taken a stand for us. No order has been passed to provide us with safety gear or to test us. This despite the fact that we are the first ones visiting each home….We do not know which home has positive patient still we go and knock.”
She pointed out that “Haryana government gives Rs 4,000 per month salary plus incentives which keeps their ASHA workers motivated but not Punjab”.
“Here we even have to beg for masks and gloves,” she said.
Asked about the concerns raised by ASHA workers, Dr Avneet Kaur, Director, Health and Family Welfare, Punjab, said, “There is standard protocol for all frontline workers which applies to ASHA workers also.” She refused to answer any further queries.
Back at the Moga hospital, the four ASHA workers alleged that they are not being given proper food. “Someone should tell us how to eat cold, stale rotis and dry vegetables. This is not how we should be treated. We gave our everything fighting coronavirus at the frontline. We went door to door covering our face with dupattas, washing hands, knocking gates with our feet…Is this what we get in return?” said one among them.
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