The COVID brigade was formed in the middle of 2020, when the pandemic hit and the Kerala government mobilised human resources, and was disbanded in October 2021.

Men and women in white PPE kits on the road, sitting and lying down, in protest
news Protest Friday, January 14, 2022 - 18:29

Two banners hang side by side in front of the nearly dozen protestors sitting midway of the Secretariat road in Thiruvananthapuram. Behind the green grilled fence, they sit against, are the offices of state ministers and government officials – the people who could answer the protestors’ questions that have been printed neatly on one of the banners. It is the seventh day of the protest – a hot Monday afternoon of January 2022 – and the men and women gathered there had served the state during a most critical time. They were members of the COVID brigade that the government had quickly formed in mid-2020 to fight the coronavirus pandemic that hit the state and country. A year-and-a-half later they were suddenly disbanded, with pending incentives and many worries. By October 2021, more than 22,000 of them had lost their jobs.

“There was no warning, it was too sudden. Some of us were on duty through the month of October 2021) when they (government authorities) said we could leave by noon, that we were being let go,” says Deepa, who worked as a cleaning staff in Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. The cleaning staff and the nursing assistants were the first to be dismissed, one among the first to be hired when the brigade was formed in 2020.

“Considering the possibility of an escalation in the number of COVID cases it is required to mobilise all available resources,” said the 2020 government order on the recruitment of COVID brigade. "The new and previously recruited human resources on duty for COVID management together shall be termed as the COVID brigade," it said. Broadly there were three categories: medical staff comprising doctors, nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians; non-medical staff for logistics and organisational functions; and multipurpose workers.     

Among the demands of the protesting workers are the payment of pending incentives, to be given by the state government. While the salary was paid by the Union government, the state paid them incentives. “Some haven’t got incentives for up to six to nine months. They talk of paying in installments but that wouldn’t help many of us who have loans to pay and debts to finish. They also failed on the promise of making permanent the staff who had completed 100 days of work. Many of the brigade members didn’t even get their experience certificate which would help them register for new employment,” says Sreekuttan, who worked as a data entry operator in the COVID brigade, and is coordinating the protest.  

Members from all districts in Kerala come for the protest on different days. They hold demonstrations wearing their PPE kits and lying down on the busy roads of Statue Junction.  

“Many of the brigade members were hired by agencies for the National Health Mission, which had the task of recruitment. Sadly, these agencies rip off a lot of the incentive meant for the brigade members. For instance, if the incentive of an employee is Rs 10,000, the employee would only get in hand Rs 1,500 to 2,000,” says Sreekuttan.

If they can’t give the pending incentives now, at least give the jobs back, says Sreedevi, cleaning staff who lost her job. “Some of us had left our jobs in private companies to join the government’s fight against COVID-19. We came when few were willing to come, it was a time everyone was worried about the new virus,” she says.

The sacrifices were many, recount the other protestors gathered there. For months, they hadn’t gone home or seen their families. They remained in hostels and lodges, working. “In the initial days, they’d give us quarantine time of 14 days after a shift, but later the number of days got less and less. In the end, we weren’t allowed any offs at all, not even after three continuous night shifts,” says Murugan, who was a nursing assistant.

This, after they did everything for a COVID-19 patient from bathing them, feeding them, and taking them for tests and treatments. 

 

 

Many of them got infected too. “I lost my mother to COVID-19 and she caught the virus from me,” says Nisha, who was a member of the brigade. Deepa’s uncle too died of COVID-19 after getting it from her.

“We heard the government is recruiting again but they are not considering any of the brigade members they let go. We want to ask them to please consider us,” Deepa says.

The brigade members are experienced, they have handled emergencies when the number of infections rose really high in the state. “It is better to hire these experienced people at a time when the cases are increasing so much (after the spread of the Omicron variant). We haven’t been able to convey any of this to the authorities. But we have hope that the government will take notice and do well by us,” Sreekuttan adds. 

Pending incentives up to July 2021 were cleared, said an official of the National Health Mission (NHM). The official added that the NHM does not hire permanent employees and there was no promise of making permanent the jobs of those who completed 100 days of service.

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