Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, front-line workers remain the worst-affected amid India’s crumbling healthcare system. To add to their woes, the families of workers who have died after contracting the virus on the job, are struggling to get any compensation or attention from the state.
‘We Kept Begging; There was No Response’
Fakreh Alam, a lab technician from Bihar tested positive for COVID-19 in July. With severe comorbidities like diabetes and asthma, he asked to be shifted out of the Patna-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences’ (IGIMS) COVID-19-centre where he had been working. Despite his constant appeals to the authorities for a change of duty, no heed was paid. Once positive, Alam, despite working at a government hospital, could not find a bed in any hospital. He was declared dead in an ambulance while he was being taken to a hospital.
Speaking to NewsClick, Alam’s son said: “My mother and I tested positive too. We are still in quarantine; my father’s death is an institutional murder by the state. Despite repeated appeals he was kept in a corona facility. We kept begging but there was no response. Even after his death we are struggling to receive any compensation from the state. I will only be able to do anything once I test negative,” he alleged.
When the pandemic intensified, the Central government announced an insurance scheme for front-line workers in March, as part of its Rs 1.7 lakh crore COVID-19 relief package. “Approximately 22 lakh health workers would be provided insurance cover to fight this pandemic,” said the official press note. The scheme has been mandated to cover I, ward-boys, nurses, ASHA workers, paramedics, technicians, doctors, specialists and other health workers. While the notification said that those who had lost their lives due to COVID-19 are to be covered, many are now struggling to prove this claim and avail any compensation.
Fifty-year-old Sunita Devi from Lakhisarai district in Bihar was part of a team of ASHA workers who began surveying and spreading awareness about COVID-19 in March. Her friend and colleague Sunita Kumari broke down over the phone while sharing her ordeal. “We conducted surveys in the state between March 16 and March 25. After the first round of surveys, she started showing symptoms of breathlessness and discomfort. Our supervisor dismissed it and we struggled to get her tested; there was absolute medical negligence and nobody even came close to her, let alone give her medicines. She passed away on March 28. We have filled in forms for compensation but no enquiry has been initiated,” she added.
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Hospitals to Take Call as Hopes Fade
The government notification gives the last word to hospitals, which can declare that the workers had come in contact with COVID-19 patients. This is a tedious claim to prove as many workers struggle to establish direct contact, as seen in the case of Sunita Devi.
Rukaiya Begum’s account from Delhi is a similar story. The 50-year-old was working as a safai karamchari in the surgical ward at the Kalawati Saran Hospital; she died a month ago after she reportedly contracted the virus. Her co-workers said that her file has not moved ahead since. Speaking to NewsClick, Sevak Ram, her co-worker, said that “we fear that we might meet with the same fate. We work long shifts and we do more than our designated duties; we are in close contact with different patients at the hospital and we don’t often know who has the virus.”
Rukaiya’s son refused to speak, saying that there was no hope left for the family. “We are putting ourselves on the line every single day so that we can put food on the plate for our families. Since we are contractual workers we are enormously exploited and not given our due,” said Sevak Ram. Their supervisor, who had also tested positive, is now recovering.
In addition to the Centre’s relief package, Delhi government had also announced Rs 1 crore compensation in April for families of front-line workers who die of the virus while “deployed for COVID-19 duties”; “accidental death on account of COVID-19 related duty” is defined as an accident which is “sudden, unforeseen and involuntary event caused by external, visible and violent means”. However, this claim is not being recognised by insurance agencies.
Sakli Devi worked as a cook in a quarantine centre. The forty-something Devi died on duty two months ago following a sudden heart attack. She is survived by three daughters; any hope for compensation is now fading away. Speaking to NewsClick, Devi’s neighbour said: “They are not recognising her case as one which qualifies for any compensation and an enquiry was initiated since hers is not a direct COVID-19 related-death; we are struggling to prove anything or compel the government to ensure they get their due,” she added.
The case of 53-year-old Kamla Suresh, a sanitation worker with the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, who died on May 31 after contracting COVID-19, is also stuck in the bureaucratic machinery. While staff members of local urban bodies are covered under the Centre’s insurance scheme, they have to be “requisitioned” by a hospital and “drafted for COVID-19 related responsibilities”, according to the health ministry. It is something her son is struggling to prove.
Ira Singhal, NDMC’s Director (Press and Information) told NewsClick: “We have sent her case to the government. We have some new guidelines on seeking some extra information on such cases. Once that happens we will send it forward, this is on our priority list,” she added.
However, Singhal did not clarify what these new guidelines were. Suresh’s family is now hoping that they get the compensation that they deserve.
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