Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs across the country, who have been playing an important role in the collective fight against the Covid-19, have been forced to work without proper safety gears as they collect data on cases and distribute food and relief material among other several activities.
ASHA workers, the least paid healthcare workers, earn a meagre sum of Rs 1,500-2,000 a month as incentives for a list of 50-odd approved works. And ever since the novel coronavirus outbreak, the ASHAs have been given different responsibilities that would not seek these incentives.
“Since the corona outbreak, the ASHA workers are not doing their regular work; they are occupied with the work related to Covid-19. Usually, they get a very meagre amount as wage along with some incentives for the tasks they perform. Now, they are not getting these regular incentives. So, they’re getting paid less than before now,” said A R Sindhu of All India Coordination Committee of ASHA workers, which is affiliated to Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). As frontline workers, their workload has increased, but incomes have reduced, she said.
There are over nine lakh ASHA workers across the country. Owing to the lack of protective gear, many have been infected with Covid-19 so far. Over 20 ASHA workers have lost their lives to the infection.
“In Andhra Pradesh alone, 15 ASHAs have died since March 15. No post-mortem has been conducted. Also, their families are yet to receive compensation. The situation is somewhat similar in states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh etc.,” said Sindhu.
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“Apart from this, they and their families are being stigmatised and attacked by local miscreants as ‘carriers of corona’. Many ASHA workers and even family members had to be hospitalised due to such attacks,” Sindhu told NewsClick.
On July 10, ASHA workers from Karnataka organised a protest and they warned the government that they would boycott work. The immediate demands of the protesting workers were: enough protective gear and a monthly wage of Rs 12,000, including their current additional incentives. They also demanded that all ASHA workers be tested for Covid-19 and that those who test positive be treated. According to reports, in Karnataka, two ASHA workers have died of Covid-19 and many have tested positive as well.
Many states including Punjab, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Assam have witnessed ASHA workers’ protests recently.
On June 25, the ASHAs across the country had observed a ‘Demands Day’ under the banner of All India Coordination Committee of ASHA Workers raising the slogan ‘Healthcare for all! Safety for healthcare workers!’ Tens of thousands of ASHAs had stepped out to protest against the conditions of work and to demand better health services for the people. In most of the states or UTs, including Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Assam, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, they protested at the PHCs, CHCs etc. and submitted memoranda to the local authorities, which were also forwarded to the health ministers at the state and central level.
The demands raised during the protests were: regularisation of ASHA Workers and all National Health Mission workers as permanent workers, minimum wages, social security and pension as per recommendations of the 45th and 46th ILC, safety gear for all frontline workers, especially those in the health sector, PPE for those who are engaged in containment areas and red/containment zone, frequent, random and free Covid-19 testing for all frontline workers, Rs 50 lakh insurance cover to all frontline workers covering all deaths on duty, coverage of treatment for Covid-19 for the entire family, an additional incentive of Rs 25,000 per month for all the contract and scheme workers engaged in Covid-19 duty, and immediate payment of all the pending dues, among several other key demands.
In April, the Centre had announced an incentive of Rs 1,000 a month to be paid from January to June to ASHAs for their essential COVID-related work under the India Covid-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Package. They also directed state governments to ensure that their regular honorarium of Rs 2,000 is paid along with the task-based incentives.
Recently, the Health Ministry had praised ASHAs for their active participation in COVID-19 household surveys and for screening inter-state passengers, migrant workers, and others in the community.
“Recognizing the increased vulnerability of certain population groups to Covid-19, in a one-time survey to identify households with the elderly, persons with co-morbidities, and immune-compromised individuals, about 1.59 crore households were covered,” the ministry said in a statement.
But mere praise and paltry hike in honorarium are not enough for the workers who risk their own lives to fight the virus. According to Sindhu, in many states, the wages of ASHAs are still pending for the past 5-6 months. “The hike, which the Centre had announced in 2018, is yet to be given to many workers,” she said.
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