India’s women health workers on dangerous terrain in anti-COVID-19 battle

By Ujwala P

Bengaluru, India, May 14 (efe-epa).- Parvathi Bai, 48, goes knocking from door to door in Indian villages, with just a hand sanitizer, a few face masks, and pen and paper in her bag, as a part of government measures against the novel coronavirus epidemic.

Not so well equipped, Bai, one among the network of 1.3 million women health workers, known as Anganwadi, speak to families in rural neighborhoods to check for Covid-19 symptoms and advise them about precautions they should be taking to prevent the disease.

“Do not step outside unless necessary, there is a virus and you might already know about it. So, please wash your hands often and wear a mask if you have to step outside,” she warns every family she visits, before distributing masks, hand sanitizers, and some government aid.

The community-based network of women healthcare workers under the central health ministry operates in rural areas in a country with inadequate medical infrastructure, especially in non-urban spaces.

The authorities have now tasked them with physical contact tracing and rolling out government measures in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Moreover, with the country under a nationwide lockdown since Mar. 25, many households find themselves with no source of income and are dependent on these health workers for food supplies.

After brief training in March, these Anganwadi workers were given only “two masks and sanitizer” before sending them in the field.

They decided to buy gloves from their pocket because “we distribute food to people,” Bai told EFE.

Against a shortage of personal protective equipment, which is of poor quality if available at all, many of these women stitch their masks and distribute them during their visits.

The situation remains precarious, putting health workers and the people at considerable risk. One of Bai’s colleagues fell prey to the highly contagious virus during her routine efforts against COVID-19.

“Our worker who tested positive for the virus had distributed food to over 80 houses. Now we have to quarantine all those houses,” M. Jayamma, general secretary of the Anganwadi workers federation in the southern state of Karnataka, told EFE.

Despite working in high-risk areas, these health workers do not undergo frequent testing.

Experts claim the shortage of testing kits and delays in test results have made it difficult for the government to prioritize who should be tested.

India, with a population of some 1.3 billion people, has so far tested over 1.6 million samples – a little over one percent of the population, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research.

However, Jayamma, with a handkerchief tied around her face like a mask, stressed it was vital to conduct frequent tests on these local healthcare workers like her “else (if infected) I could spread it to so many people”.

“There is no point in helping us after we have contracted the virus, they have to provide adequate facilities to all health workers before we catch the virus,” she said.

Besides these health workers, government schoolteachers, other community-level workers, and junior government health officials have also been involved in efforts to check the infections at the rural level through awareness programs.

Despite weeks of stringent lockdown measures, the country has continued to register a steady uptick in the number of coronavirus patients that are nearing the 70,000-mark with over 2,200 deaths, according to official figures.

With the government’s decision to finally transport migrant wage earners – stuck in cities due to the lockdown – back to their native villages, and its plans to progressively ease restrictions to restart the country’s economy, the situation is likely to become more complicated for these health workers.

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