Nithya*, a staff nurse in Chennai hired by the Medical Recruitment Board on contract basis, is also the mother of a one-year-old. Although Nithya, who works in the general ward, had fever for a couple of days, she tested negative in the swab test. However, she soon woke up to a nightmare when her husband tested positive for the coronavirus.
Nithya's husband, who is symptomatic, is in home quarantine, and the nurse says that she is undergoing a lot of mental trauma due to the ostracism that the family is facing from neighbours.
The Chennai Corporation arranged for home delivery of groceries, but the neighbours are not allowing the volunteers inside, she says.
“When the Corporation volunteers come to provide us groceries, my neighbours question them. They say that the volunteer is coming here to spread the virus. The Corporation staff is helpful but not the neighbours. For them, a notice from the Corporation is not enough. They don’t understand that people like me are exposed while doing public service,” she alleges.
“I could not listen to their taunts, and finally I approached the police station for help. The police officials have warned them of action and left,” she adds.
When asked if a complaint was registered against the neighbours, the nurse says, “I have not registered a complaint since I understand that they do this out of fear. I just wanted them to realise that I work for them. I risked my life and put the lives of my family also at risk, but this is what I get back. They should not do this to us.”
Apart from having to work in the middle of a pandemic, Nithya is also looking for a domestic worker to take care of their one-year-old.
“If the hospital calls me back for work, I need to give the baby to the domestic worker, and make her give formula," she says. “I'm afraid for my daughter, too. I have not breastfed her while I was doing my duty at the hospital. My husband was feeding her formula. If she has also got the virus, she may start showing symptoms in the next 14 days. It's very stressful and there is nobody to even provide counseling in the hospitals."
Tamil Nadu Health Minister C Vijayabaskar on Saturday said that the government has appointed 2,000 nurses on a six-month basis in Chennai, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu districts. However, Nithya says that the hospital she works in did not see any fresh postings, and new mothers like her are also expected to work due to the shortage of nursing staff.
“The nurses report for duty while missing out on the period when their infant is rapidly developing. Their babies are fed only formula since there's no direct mother feed,” says Seetha*, a member of MRB Nurses Association.
In the COVID-19 ward, the nurses work for seven days and are given places near the hospital to quarantine themselves for the next seven days. After five days of quarantine, the nurses will be tested for the coronavirus. If the results are negative, they will be allowed to go back home on the seventh day, at noon. However, they will have to report for work the next day. The strenuous shifts for nurses working in the COVID-19 ward allow them to go back home only once in 15 days.
“The mothers also see their babies only once in a month. The government allowed them to stay at home but the lack of nurses is forcing them to report for duty,” says Seetha.
As the days pass and the number of cases increase, the risk of infection for medical professionals has also gone up. The nurses working in other wards do not have easy access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) gear, thereby running the risk of catching the virus from asymptomatic patients.
“When the nurses treat emergency cases, the patient can be asymptomatic and we will get to know this only after a few days. The nurses treating them will not have PPE kits. Hence all the nurses who are exposed to the patients are also at high risk,” says a nurse who wants to remain anonymous.
Nithya also works in the delivery wards and she says that the risk of contracting the virus is high as expectant mothers are sometimes sent to general wards when the patient influx is high.
The doctors and nurses are also seeing instances of those who were said to have recovered from the virus exhibiting symptoms again and even succumbing to it. A nurse in Chennai who died on June 14 is allegedly one such case. The 54-year-old nurse was working in the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital and tested positive for COVID-19 in the middle of March. However, she recovered from the virus. The nurse reported to duty but once again showed symptoms of COVID-19 within a month. Her swabs were tested and she was found to be COVID-19 positive, following which her health condition worsened. The nurse suffered from breathing difficulty and was kept under ventilator support. However, she succumbed without responding to treatment on June 14.
Reiterating this, a nurse said, “Many doctors and nurses in Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital and many other government hospitals have tested positive. The families of the doctors and nurses are also suffering the brunt of the coronavirus because we are working tirelessly. All the medical staff are reporting to work without any break except the quarantine period.”
The nurses working under contract basis are a troubled lot since their jobs have not been made permanent in the past five years since they joined for duty. The nurses do not have adequate salary or insurance schemes to help them tide over the pandemic. “The contractor nurses are paid only Rs 14,000. We do not even have insurance,” a nurse working in Chennai says.
The lack of adequate salary has also taken a toll on the nurses, including Nithya.
“There is an oral order that the doctors and nurses in the general wards should not be tested. So I took my husband for testing in a private lab, where I had to pay Rs 4,000 for testing. I got the help of NGOs for money but now I cannot test my whole family because I need to spend Rs 20,000 on testing but my salary itself is Rs 14,000. When I don’t even have money for testing, how will I get treatment?” Nithya asks.
"The nurses do this work out of compassion and they do not want to leave the job at any point just because it is difficult. However, now I regret taking this job," she adds.