That day, Sumesh had to drive for 60 kilometres through Thiruvananthapuram, picking and dropping three people suspected of having coronavirus in the ambulance. At one point, he stopped outside a shop and asked for water, to buy. The shopkeeper said there is no water, even before Sumesh could open the door of the ambulance and get down. He drove away thirsty, but not before seeing the same shopkeeper sell water to another customer who came by.
There is quite a bit of prejudice that ambulance drivers face while doing their duty in the fight against COVID-19. âPeople are scared, seeing the PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) kits and the ambulance and do not want to do anything with us,â says Sumesh, who drives one of the 15 ambulances of Kanivu 108, deployed for COVID-19 cases by the Health Department in Thiruvananthapuram.
âThere are 29 ambulances running in the district, out of which 15 are used for COVID-19 cases. There will be a pilot (driver) and an Emergency Medical Technician (a nurse) in every ambulance. All of them go through negative and positive experiences while they go out for duty,â says Nikhil Pradeep, the coordinator of the ambulances in Thiruvananthapuram.
There are, like Nikhil says, good experiences, too. Sumesh says that at another shop, when he stopped to ask for water, the shopkeeper also insisted on giving him half a âkulaâ (bunch) of plantains. âYou come across all sorts of reactions but I would say the people who react negatively are a small percentage. Most of the time, it is fear that drives them to do so. When we go to pick up a person for testing, people would come asking questions â is it corona; they want to know. They decide that it is coronavirus even before the person is taken for testing. Some will bring out their phone cameras and click.â
Sumesh remembers an incident when he picked up a woman from the airport for testing and then took her to her village. The vehicle would not go all the way to her house and when they had to stop midway, there was a small crowd around them, asking questions. Sumesh had to get down to help the woman answer the questions.
âWhenever we go to drop a person home, we first check if the place is clear and gauge the peopleâs reactions. But this is not always easy, wearing the PPE kits and everything,â he says.
Nikhil says that the drivers sweat a lot, wearing the PPE kits for hours on a stretch sometimes, in the hot weather.
Proper stay needed: woman staff
No women work in any of the ambulances for COVID-19 cases in Thiruvananthapuram. However, in Malappuram, there is a female EMT who is on COVID-19 duty. Nithya has been on COVID-19 duty for over one and a half months now. âThere are some difficulties in doing the work,â she says.
Ambulance staff who have small children or elderly people in the family do not go home these days, for fear of putting them at risk of the disease. âI have a one-year-old child whom I havenât seen close all these days. Some days, I go to see him from a distance. We donât mind risking our lives but we canât risk our familyâs,â Nithya says.
She is now staying in a room arranged for the staff of the Malappuram Taluk Hospital but that is many kilometres away from where the ambulance is stationed.
âThe time that we should be using for work is lost in travelling. The ambulance was originally allotted for the Cheriyamundam Primary Health Sub Centre. But that is too remote and could not help people much if there is an issue. So we have moved to Ponmundam PHSC. However, the driver is not allowed to be at the PHSC after 5 pm so he has stayed in the ambulance till 8 pm some days when there is duty. Proper stay arrangements for the ambulance staff are needed (especially when they canât go home). And a proper location for the ambulance is also needed,â Nithya says.
The water issue that Sumesh spoke about is one Nithya has also experienced. âWe could see water bottles kept at stores but even as they see us stop, they say there is nothing. However, we just nod and go away, let them have their peace,â she says.