As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to maintain its grip on the country, along with our frontline health warriors including doctors, nurses, paramedical staff and other medical professionals, the role played by Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) are often overlooked.
When it comes to the root level of implementation of government strategies, ASHAs play an important role along with government officials, elected representatives of panchayat, members of self-help groups and Anganwadi workers. ASHAs help to identify the travel history and possible contacts of COVID-19 positive cases.
ASHAs along with anganwadi workers often form the crucial link between people and the healthcare system. They are always on ground collecting data on cases, speaking to the families in the areas, distributing food and relief and checking on people across the country for symptoms other their prescribed activities.
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The ASHAs -- the lowest paid health care workers, who reportedly earn a meagre sum of Rs 1,500-2,000 in a month as incentives for a list of 50-odd approved works -- have been working without having proper safety gears. There are over 9 lakh ASHA workers and over 35 lakh Anganwadi workers across India.
On April 19, an ASHA worker who had been deployed in Central Delhi district’s Sadar Bazaar area for containment activities, tested positive for COVID-19. On the very next day, Delhi ASHA Workers’ Association had demanded for personal protection equipment (PPEs) for ASHAs who are on the ground. Various bodies have continuously been demanding for PPEs for all health workers including ASHAs from the very beginning of the containment activities.
A senior official from the Delhi government back then had said that ASHA workers are provided gloves, masks and shoe covers and they did not require PPE kits. “They don’t require PPE, as they are supposed to maintain a social distance while collecting information from people during the door-to-door survey. They are provided a basic kit comprising masks, gloves and sanitisers. PPE kits are to be used by hospital staff,” the official had said.
“The chances of ASHA workers contracting the infection are very high, as it is difficult to say which resident is a carrier of the infection, and they interact with so many. So PPE kits should be given to them,” said Kavita Yadav, state coordinator for ASHA workers, All India United Traders’ Union Centre (AIUTUC).
Again, during the first week of May, four ASHA workers in Monga village in Punjab had tested positive for COVID-19. These ASHAs had been carrying out door-to-door survey. Since the ASHAs had tested positive, over 250 people were put in quarantine.
A.R. Sindhu, General Secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, however, pointed out that workers are not refusing work and are “continuing to work without any equipment. We do not want them to act as spreading agents due to a lack of safety”.
Various unions and associating have been urging the Centre to ensure safety gears for all health workers. On May 14, workers and citizens led by Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) protested across the country demanding that the Centre provide safety gears to “all frontline workers” including those who are engaged in providing essential services to the citizens, thus risking their lives by getting exposed to COVID-19.
“Not just doctors and paramedics, protection from infection must be ensured also to field workers like ASHA, Anganwadi and to the employees in essential services like banking, transport or sanitation,” said Tapan Sen, CITU general secretary.
Even in some hospitals, only doctors and nurses who treat COVID-19 patients get PPE kits. “In some hospitals, only the doctors and nurses who treat COVID patients receive PPE kit. The ward boys, sanitation staff, even other doctors who treat non-COVID patients continue to remain at risk,” said Dr Harjit Bhatti, national president of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum.
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