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Office-goers battle the fear of COVID-19: ‘It’s scary, wish we could work from home’

According to Health Ministry guidelines, all indoor areas in an office, from lobbies and corridors to telephones and door handles are to be disinfected. It is, however, not being followed at some workplaces.

Written by Disha Roy Choudhury | New Delhi | Published: June 22, 2020 12:30:54 pm
office, coronavirus Employees are to use hand sanitisers, wear masks and maintain social distancing in the office (representational image, Source: File photo)

With banks being operational at the time of the coronavirus lockdown, as part of essential services, for Poonam Navale, an employee at a co-operative bank in Mumbai, there was some resentment about going to office while others worked from home. “The acceptance came late but it did come eventually. I realised work has to go on,” she told indianexpress.com.

During the lockdown, most bank employees were going to their workplace on alternate days. Since Unlock 1.0, employees are mostly going daily, taking necessary precautions like wearing masks, sanitising hands and maintaining social distancing as far as possible. The latter, however, becomes difficult to follow in a place like a bank with employees having to deal with customers on a regular basis.

office, face mask, coronavirus Face masks are compulsory, as per the Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines. (Source: getty images)

‘Some customers do not wear masks or pull them down’

About five to a maximum of 10 people are being allowed to enter a bank at a time now, as per various State Level Bankers Committee guidelines but the queue outside the premises has been found to only be multiplying since the end of the lockdown. To maintain social distancing, chairs and rope are being used to create a boundary. “But sometimes the customer tends to flout social distancing and then we have to ask them to step back a little. Some do not cover their faces so then we ask them to put a mask, some even pull down their masks. Sometimes we have spare masks so we give it to them,” Poonam, who works at the front desk, said. For cash transactions, employees are wearing gloves.

Read| How to make face masks at home

With the spike in COVID-19 cases, bank employees are also being advised to wear face shields. “So the front counter— those who are dealing with customers on a daily basis — is mostly wearing it,” Poonam added. But wearing them all the time can be difficult given the summer heat. And so some have stuck to wearing masks like in a rural bank in West Bengal that Neha (name changed) works at.

“Not many of the customers coming in are aware of the danger of coronavirus and taking necessary safety measures. When you ask them to wear a mask, one might just pull up her pallu to her face to cover it,” Neha remarked.

Besides, more and more people from the nearby rural areas are coming to the bank to avail their due from government beneficiary schemes. “These people are in desperate need of money. And they usually come daily to enquire about the schemes, without realising it could increase the chances of exposure to infection. About 100 customers are coming in daily and on an average, I have to deal with approximately 50 of them,” she further said.

As for the other precautions, employees are at least maintaining social distance from each other. Lunch is being eaten at their respective cabins and not together, revealed both the employees. Temperature checks are also being done at Poonam’s workplace but not at Neha’s.

“There are some who are still on leave because they are paranoid, especially those with medical conditions,” Poonam said. Pregnant women and people with comorbidities are being allowed a “special leave without loss of pay” as per Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) guidelines.

Maintain social distancing with your colleagues. (Source: getty images)

‘Surfaces not disinfected, meetings held’

According to Health Ministry guidelines, all indoor areas in an office, from lobbies and corridors to telephones and door handles are to be disinfected. It is, however, not being followed at some workplaces. At Neha’s bank, for instance, only regular cleaning is being done. Sanitisation of the place would only be done in case of COVID-19 cases, on the orders of the Panchayat. Even at the workplace of an official in the Aviation Ministry in Delhi, the office area is not being disinfected on a daily basis. “We have sanitisers at office but not any thermal gun for temperature check,” Dibakar (name changed) added. The situation is similar even at Ranjan’s (name changed) office, who works in the income tax sector in Mumbai, which is located in a containment zone. “The lift is being sanitised but not the interiors of the office. Our is the only office that is open while the rest of the building is sealed,” he said.

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At Ranjan’s office, an employee’s temperature is checked when they come in the morning and hand sanitisers are also being provided. But that is not the case at Dibakar’s workplace. While hand sanitisers are being used, there is pretty much no other precautionary measure being taken, he said. “There have been a lot of cases in and around my office and yet somehow the administration is not doing enough in taking effective precautionary measures. We are still having a lot of face-to-face meetings, which is very surprising for us also, even after orders issued by the government. On an average, an officer is still attending three to four meetings a day,” he said, although World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised conducting such meetings only when it cannot avoided. The cafeteria at both the offices are not yet operational.

Ranjan added, “Face-to-face meetings are being held at our office, mostly among higher officials but with 50 per cent less people in a room. A lot of our interactions have shifted to WhatsApp groups.”

Travelling to office

One of the other concerns about going to office is the mode of travel. Ranjan or Dibakar, for instance are using their own vehicles to reach office. For others, public transport does not yet seem to be a safe option given that one could come in contact with people who could be carriers. For now, people like Neha are hiring private cars with other colleagues in the neighbourhood to travel to office. But the cost of conveyance has increased a lot. “I am spending Rs 700 daily which consumes a significant part of my monthly salary. But there is no other option,” said Neha.

For some sectors, work from home is not feasible, like in the case of a bank or income tax sector. Ranjan added, “Our infrastructure is not equipped to facilitate work from home, although till June 30, we have to go to office only twice a week as per the roster. At a certain day, there are not more than 10 people in the office.”

office canteen, coronavirus, social distancing Some offices are extending their lunch hours to ensure lesser people coming to the cafeteria at a time. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

In other cases like that of Dibakar, it is senior officials who are skeptical about work from home. “I can do the same work from home also but unfortunately the seniors are hesitant about allowing us to do so.”

Fortunately for Kavita (name changed) who works at a hotel in Delhi-NCR, there is no need for travelling since the staff is now residing at the hotel itself although it is yet to resume operations. For now, no check-ins are being allowed. People are only stepping out in case of medical needs. The hotel has an in-house doctor. No outside guest is being allowed to enter the premises. “I have been staying at the hotel for two weeks now. We have limited staff who are staying in the hotel to look after guests who have been here from around the time the lockdown was announced. We are just confined here and are not stepping out. There are two people for the morning shift and two for the night shift, and two managers who are there throughout the day. That is how every department is working,” she said.

Read| Explained: How the coronavirus pandemic may change work culture

The lunch time for the employees at the hotel have been extended. “If it is a big table, three people can sit, else only two will sit at table that too at a distance from each other. A similar rule is applied when one is working at a desk. The HR is making sure social distancing and other safety measures are being followed,” said Kavita. Payments are mostly being done online although for some people, card swipe machine is being used, which is then put into a sanitisation box for about 20 minutes before the next use.

‘The fear is there constantly’

At an individual level, each of these people are taking precautions before leaving for office, at the workplace and after coming home. They put on a mask when they step out of the house and sanitise their hands when they reach office. After coming home, they sanitise all personal belongings like wallet and mobile phone and take a shower right away.

And yet even a slight discomfort in the body or sore throat is enough to get one worried, specially when one has to step out of their house everyday and work in a public space. “It is scary because I have to come back home to my family members. Working in the government sector, we realise whatever work comes our way, we have to get it completed. That is the only thing that pushes me to go to office. But we could have perhaps worked from home also,” Dibakar expressed.

Poonam, on the other hand, is trying to keep herself physically and mentally healthy. Besides taking homeopathy medicines, she is also taking part in spiritual sessions and meditation. She travels to office in a rickshaw. “Rickshaw pullers have attached a plastic film between them and the passengers. At least that makes me feel safer. But the fear is also there constantly because we are hearing the COVID-19 situation is only going to worsen.”

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