Staff from the health department and Chennai Corporation have been working close to 14 hours a day with no breaks or holidays from March.

Sanitation in progress at a street in ChennaiImage for Representation
Coronavirus Coronavirus Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 08:17

Ever since the lockdown began in Chennai to fight the coronavirus, 49-year-old Arun (name changed) has barely seen his family. He spends at least 14 hours away from his house, coming back after 9 pm every night, when his wife, children and elderly mother have already retired for the day. Arun then proceeds to wash his own clothes and sleep as far as possible from his family in his 100 square feet quarters.

Arun is a sanitation worker (on contract) who works with the Chennai Corporation, which comes under the essential services. He works in Zone 9, Teynampet, which has seen over 400 cases since the pandemic began.

"My daily duty starts at 7 am and involves spraying disinfectant in the Teynampet zone first. We cover street by street and then spray the Amma Unavagams (Amma canteens) that are open,” he says. But his work does not end there. Arun gets on to his COVID-19 duties.

“After that, I take patients with coronavirus, their neighbours, friends and even samples to be tested for infection, to government hospitals. We even accompany nurses when they collect swabs from suspected patients. I wear a mask and gloves but I know that I will eventually get the virus," he says.

With his mother who is over 70 at home, Arun realises that an infection could prove fatal to her. "But what can I do? If I don't come out and earn how will we all eat?" he asks.

"I am not even a permanent staff. If I don't come, I won't even get the Rs 329 per day that I get now. It is a battle between life and livelihood," he says.

Arun says that while he attempts to maintain distance while testing is being conducted or patients are being taken to the hospital, it is not always safe.

"I work for over 14 hours. During that period, I cannot keep washing my hands. Sometimes I forget and touch my face with gloved hands. I can't maintain one-metre distance in people's houses when I am trying to convince them to get quarantined," he explains.

"In addition to this, we get verbal abuses from people who do not want to get tested or come to the hospital. They blame us and make our day miserable with tantrums. But I still do this because I hope one day I will become permanent staff. I am risking mine and my mother's life for the sake of my children," he adds.

Their efforts, however, are sometimes met with punishment, even when they merely do as told.

For instance, R Vinoth Kumar, a sanitation worker, was suspended on March 28, after he stuck a quarantine notice outside actor Kamal Haasan's house on Eldams Road in Chennai.

Speaking to TNM, he says, "I am the sole breadwinner in my house and we were dependent on that Rs 12,000 to make ends meet. So, I kept my fear at bay and went to work. They were making us slog so much during this pandemic and we were working double-shifts just in the hope of becoming permanent staff. But finally, they suspended me for merely following an order from the sanitary inspector. "In fact, because I can't read and write English, the sanitary inspector dictated the spelling of Kamal Haasan's name to me over the phone."

Vinoth alleges that he was forced to take the blame when his superiors had actually given him the address of the actor and asked him to paste the notice.

“First of all, it is not my job to put up these notices; the sanitary inspector is supposed to be present while this is done. But later, when there was a backlash, they made me take the fall," he alleges.

From the extra hours of work to the increased exposure to persons who could be infected, the sanitary staff are treated like dispensable commodities, says Arun.

"We don't even get proper food to eat. And if we ask too many questions, we are suspended or transferred," he alleges.

Senior staff in the Chennai Corporation, too, admit that the frontline staff are at the receiving end of most dangers from this pandemic.

While officials in the Deputy Commissioner, Regional Deputy Commissioner and Zonal Official ranks put in at least 12 hours minimum on a daily basis, it is the frontline workers like Sanitary Inspectors and health-line staff who are exposed to a rigorous routine.

“Senior officials inspect and pass down orders but they are the ones executing it. They are on the field and it is taxing for them physically,” explains a senior official, on the condition of anonymity.

"But GCC personnel, especially the senior officers, too, have been working continuously without a break for the past 50 days," he adds.

‘Forced to work this way’

Most of the senior staff, including Zonal officers and Health officials, whom TNM spoke to, however, do not harbour the same fears as the ground level staff.

"We don't fear infection. We have taken the necessary steps - masks and gloves and have limited exposure," says a health official from Koyambedu. "We are working 12 hours a day but this is something that we are used to. During the 2015 floods, Vardah cyclone and dengue outbreaks, we have been forced to work this way. It is a part and parcel of our jobs as health officials," adds the official.

What keeps this health official worried through this lockdown, however, is the lack of discipline amongst residents.

"No matter how much you try to explain to them, residents are not taking the disease as seriously as they should. We are constantly trying to spread awareness and make sure they stay at home but they defy any kind of orders and requests. That is the toughest part… feeling that all your effort will not make a difference," adds the official.   

And while the Corporation staff who are executing orders in the capital are working round the clock, health officials who are crunching numbers and working out a plan for the state, face even more pressure.

"We have spent sleepless nights because of the virus, drawing out plans and attempting to execute efforts to contain it," says a 55-year-old official from the Department of Public Health. "Every official is doing the job of two people. But we are still struggling because of the lack of resources," he reveals.

According to the health official, the department is working with fewer vehicles, staff and equipment than necessary to fight the pandemic effectively.

"We are using cars that have covered over 5 lakh kilometres and that could give up on us any time. We are short-staffed to handle such a large pandemic and we don't have enough equipment to disinfect more areas at once," he says.

"Even if we want to bring equipment now, we can't because we have to get it from Jharkhand. The government needs to allocate more resources and money to the health department," he adds.

The official has sent his wife and children to their hometown to protect them from the virus, in case he carries it back home.

"As a staff member, we are sacrificing so much. We even use our money to fuel vehicles to conduct checks and travel for office work. But if we don't get the required help from the government, what we do will have no meaning," he says. 

(With inputs from Anjana Shekar)

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