Tamil Nadu has administered around 6.38 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccines at the daily camps and the nine mega camps held so far but health workers leading this massive exercise have been stressed by targets and overtime in the last several months.
The village health nurses (VHN), assistant health nurses (AHN), staff nurses and doctors across the state continue to work under immense stress to meet the vaccination targets. The health department even demands explanations from doctors for not meeting targets.
The extended working hours, the pressure exerted by the health department, backlash from people against vaccines and the consequent mental stress have caused severe discontent against the state government with the VHNs holding a statewide protest on Friday. They will also hold a massive protest in Chennai on November 23 to highlight their plight.
Tamil Nadu has progressed in vaccinating the eligible population after the second wave took a massive toll with two jabs administered to 2,09,19,418 people and the first shot to 4,29,33,959 till Friday afternoon. The process, however, has slowed down in November with around 1.6 crore people not vaccinated. Around 70 lakh people eligible for the second dose are yet to receive it. The modality adopted by the health department to vaccinate the population is causing problems to the stressed health workers.
“To speed up the process of vaccination, the health department is setting targets for the health workers. The department sought clarifications from the heads of the primary health centres (PHCs) which did not achieve the targets,” a doctor attached to a PHC told Newsclick.
Six doctors attached to PHCs in Salem district were ordered to submit explanations for not achieving the vaccination target but the order was later withdrawn.
(Left) Explanation sought by the deputy director of health in Salem from a doctor attached to PHC for not achieving the vaccination target and (right) the letter intimating the withdrawal of the order.
“Asking for an explanation and threatening action is totally illogical. The health department should not indulge in such acts even if it does not recognise the work done,” the doctor added.
OVERWORKED AND UNRECOGNISED
With the state government announcing two mass camps per week to achieve 100% first-dose vaccination, the stress of the workers is set to increase. “The health workers have been stressed out since the pandemic. Pressuring them to achieve targets does not make sense,” another PHC doctor told Newsclick.
“Though the camps are scheduled from 7 am to 7 pm, we work for around 16-18 hours picking up vaccines, travelling to the camps and coming back. There is very little arrangement for transportation,” a staff nurse attached to the MRB Nurses Welfare Association said.
The state government is also conducting door-to-door vaccination but has few takers. Since November 18, two mega camps are being held every week. The Tamil Nadu Government Doctors Association (TNGDA) in a letter addressed to the minister for medical and family welfare raised doubts over door-to-door vaccination and pointed out the hesitancy among the population.
“The government should withdraw the door-to-door vaccination programme and educate people hesitant to take vaccines. The doctors at the PHCs are under tremendous stress,” the TNGDA memoranda demanded.
The monsoon camps, including in Chennai, have added to the problems of the health workers, who often do their work on roadsides due to the lack of coordination between the civic bodies and the health department.
A temporary monsoon camp on the roadside in Chennai.
“We are ready to discharge our duties for the common good. But the government refuses to listen to our demands on ensuring basic amenities at the camps. Right from travelling to getting food, we are struggling,” a nurse from Chennai said.
The VHNs, whose primary duty is to visit pregnant and lactating mothers and report on high-risk pregnancies are also being used to administer vaccines. The additional duty has affected their routine work in the past several months.
VHNs protest in front of the district collector’s office in Tiruvarur.
R Indira, president, Tamil Nadu Government All Health Nurses Association, condemned the exploitation of VHNs. “The VHNs are attacked by people hesitant to take vaccines. While the government says no targets have been fixed, officials are demanding explanations from the health workers, including the VHNs,” she told Newsclick.
The association also demanded exempting the VHNs from the vaccination drive. “Our primary duty is in immunisation and maternal care. The officials are insisting on carrying out their designated work before noon and vaccinating people afternoon. This will extend our working hours and increase the stress,” Indira said.
The association also alleged political intervention in the inoculation process. “Some local leaders of the political parties are forcing us to carry vaccines to houses and forcing the people to take vaccines. The government should stop this as well”, she said.
The state government has been accused of not providing incentives to VHNs, AHNs and staff nurses for doing the additional work. A VHN said, “The DMK government promised to fulfil all our basic demands. But even after discharging our duty for months, we are yet to receive any monetary benefit.”
The health workers, who understand the need for inoculation, don’t agree with the government’s methods. They have called for more awareness programmes, regularisation of working hours and fulfilling the promises made to them.