Until a few months ago, 15 sanitation workers in Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad used to shuttle between the Medipally village near Chengincherla in Medchal district and their workplace every day. However, since the COVID-19 lockdown, that is no longer the case.
For over 20 days now, these workers have been unable to go to their homes, or even enter their village. The 100-150 families who lived in their neighbourhood have ostracised the sanitation workers, fearing contracting the novel coronavirus that the latter may have been exposed to at Gandhi Hospital. As a result, these workers have been living in an âashramâ or shelter home in the Gandhi Hospital. This ashram accommodation was earlier where some of the hospitalâs patientsâ relatives would stay. However, as the hospital is only admitting COVID-19 patients now, the ashram was empty, allowing the sanitation workers to stay.
Unfortunate as these conditions are, the sanitation workersâ experience is echoed in that of many others hospital workers â nurses, ward staff, security guards, and watchmen â many of whom have been turned away from their homes and colonies in and around Hyderabad. All of these people are staying at the ashram accommodation or the hostels at the hospitalâs medical college now.
Struggles with sustenance
"Recently, a COVID-19 patient vomited in the ward, causing everyone to panic,â a worker living in the ashram narrates. âIt was one of us, a sanitation worker, who cleaned it. That's the kind of risk we are taking in this job.â
However, there is little compensation for the risks they face on the job, the workers say.
âDespite such hard work, we do not get a hike in salary. We get only about Rs 7000 in hand per month. We have given representation many times to increase our salaries, but it has been of no use," said another sanitation worker, on the condition of anonymity.
At the shelter, there is no particular arrangement for food for the workers either. They must go to staff nurses, and individually ask them to provide some food, which is usually cooked for patients to survive the day.
Back home, their fellow villagers have now said that they will allow the Gandhi Hospital workers to come in only if they get a certificate stating that they have tested negative for COVID-19, a worker said.
Situation of nurses
âBefore the lockdown, when we used to enter our colony after duty at Gandhi Hospital, our neighbors used to talk to us, ask us how was our day and all. Now, none of our neighbors are speaking to us. Even if they talk, they just complain that we are not leaving the locality and putting them at risk from COVID-19,â lamented Kanaka Durga, a nurse working from the last 13 years at Gandhi Hospital.
Kanaka is a single widow, who shoulders the responsibility of an ailing father who lived with her. However, she had to shift him to their native place when she was compelled to live in the hostel at Gandhi Hospital.
Apart from Kanaka, there are 18 other nurses staying in the hostels of the medical college due to various issues being faced by them at their hometowns and colonies. Earlier, some of them were made to sleep on the terrace of or in a separate room not being allowed to touch anyone in their homes.
Another nurse narrated the ordeal of a colleague. âShe is a lactating mother who is not being allowed to feed her infant baby back at home. The baby is surviving only on Ceralac and other milk products as the father is afraid that the baby will get infected through the motherâs milk. This is despite the mother testing negative.â
Taxing work at the hospital
Meanwhile, the workers are also feeling the physical and mental toll of the work they are doing at the hospital.
"You don't know how hard we are working here. We are getting body rashes after wearing those PPE kits for the whole day to treat COVID-19 patients. We are finding it difficult to make time to eat or even take breaks to relieve ourselves," Kanaka Durga said.
Kanaka is also one of around 200 outsourced nurses working at Gandhi Hospital. Recently, they had boycotted their duties to demand regularization of nurses who had been working at the hospital for over 15 years. However, they had come back to work after just a day, seeing the plight of the patients.
A major disadvantage faced by outsourced employees is that they are ineligible for Rs 50 lakh insurance cover announced by the Centre for frontline workers. The scheme only applies to regular employees.
One of the nurses who had boycotted duties earlier this month had revealed to TNM that their work conditions are quite difficult. At the time of reporting, the nurse said that if five patients were being discharged, then 45 others were being admitted to the hospital daily, adding to their workload.