IN THE middle of May, after almost a month without work, Dulal Sheikh managed to reach home in West Bengal’s Murshidabad from Mumbai. He thought the worst was over. But then, the 47-year-old mason was diagnosed with Covid, and spent the next 10 days in a local hospital.
Sheikh still spends most of his time in a hospital, but in Kolkata. He flaunts an ID card that says “Covid 19 Warriors Club”, earns an honorarium of Rs 15,000 a month, and is part of a volunteer force of recovered migrant workers set up by the state government to assist Covid patients.
He is among 49 workers from Murshidabad, Birbhum, Coochbehar, Medinipur and Kolkata who have been assigned to work in the city’s hospitals under this temporary employment initiative. Their job: keep morale high in Covid wards, and assist patients while providing updates to their relatives.
“We work in different hospitals, including Kolkata Medical College and Hospital, CNCI Rajarhat, M R Bangur Hospital, etc. We help patients according to their requirement, even connecting them on phone with their families,” says Rajib Sheikh from Murshidabad, who was a construction worker in Chennai before the lockdown and now assists at the Infectious Diseases and Beliaghata General Hospital.
Officials say the workers were trained for a week on safety measures and assistance in Covid wards, including how to change oxygen cylinders, check blood pressure, etc. In Kolkata, they have been housed in the youth hostel at Salt Lake stadium.
“Such clubs are now being set up in every district. The volunteers provide non-medical services, and are deployed for counselling. They also create awareness, and allay anxiety and panic associated with the pandemic,” says Mahua Banerjee, Commissioner, Health and Family Welfare Department.
On Monday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked each district to engage 1,500 such “Covid warriors”, and set up mentor groups to train them.
Officials say the initiative was conceptualised by Dr Amardendra Nath Roy, Assistant Professor, Murshidabad Medical College. “I came up with the idea when I saw the fear and reluctance among staff to assist a 61-year-old woman with a hip fracture who tested positive before surgery,” says Roy.
“The idea was proposed to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee through the Chief Secretary, and she immediately gave the green signal. The number of Covid survivors is very high, and if each of them decides to dedicate one day to serve patients, it will be easy to handle this pandemic,” he says.
At the youth hostel, Injamamul Haque, who worked at a tile unit in Gujarat, says he “helps others fight this disease mentally every day”. “I tell them about how I survived…I give them confidence,” says Haque, who assists patients at Kolkata Medical College and Hospital.
Says Kuddus Ali, who was a mason in Delhi and has been assigned to M R Bangur Hospital: “I have developed an understanding with doctors now. I often go on rounds with them and brief them about patients’ daily activities. I have not even cleared Class 10, and when patients hear us patiently, it gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Like Dulal Sheikh, who also works at M R Bangur Hospital, Rajib Sheikh says it’s a “new life” for the workers, too.
“Our day starts with breakfast of bread, bananas and a boiled egg. Once we reach the hospitals, we are given safety gear, including PPE kits. During the eight hours on duty, we are provided lunch from a veg or non-veg menu. Back in the hostel, there is dinner around 8 pm,” he says.
“Now, I don’t think I will ever be able to go back to Chennai, and carry sand and mix cement under the scorching sun,” he says.
Moinuddin Sheikh, who travelled for six days in a lorry to reach Bengal from Mumbai, is in no mood to go back, either.
“Free accommodation, free food… and they are paying us well for this indoor work. I want to stay in my own state and earn for my family. It will break my heart to go back for work to a place far from home,” he says. “I am hoping the government will create a permanent opportunity for us here.”
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