Julie Joseph had her task cut out. She would go to each of the 500 houses under her care in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor twice every week, check for symptoms and the travel history of the residents – all with just a dupatta as her protective gear.
Such is the state of nine lakh Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs across the country. They are right in the frontline of the India’s fight against coronavirus pandemic but don’t really share the spotlight with the army of doctors and nurses.
As India ramped up its fight against the outbreak in early March, various state governments started engaging ASHAs, who are typically an interface between the community and the public health system, to aid the corona fight. They are now the foot-soldiers who have put themselves out there, marching from house to house, to spread the message to the corners of India.
ASHA in Hindi means ‘hope’, but these women healthcare workers ‘hope’ to fight the good fight against coronavirus while fighting for protective gear, recognition and decent pay.
‘Dupattas Not Masks Are Our Protective Gear’
Being on the frontline means the ASHA women are also at a higher risk of getting infected.
“I speak to at least 1,000 people every week. But I am not given masks. We tell them to wash their hands regularly but have no sanitizers ourselves. We would wash our hands from time to time in the houses we are visiting. We are all scared of coronavirus. But it is important to tell people about it.”
Even in cities like Bengaluru, the situation is not any better for ASHA workers. Speaking to The Quint, Nagalakshmi, Secretary of ASHA Workers Association in Karnataka, accused the government of "not doing enough" to protect them.
“We should be given masks and sanitizers. We keep putting pressure on the government but the supply to districts have been erratic. In Bengaluru itself, we end up using our dupattas to cover our nose and mouth.”Nagalakshmi, Secretary of ASHA Workers Association in Karnataka
The All India Coordination Committee of ASHA Workers has written to the Centre seeking better equipment, stating that most of women were asked to “purchase their own” hand sanitizers and masks. The organisation represents over five lakh ASHA workers.
“It is essential that all these workers be provided with protective gears such as masks, gloves, full cover suits, hand sanitisers and soaps when they report for duty. ASHA workers must be given proper training before they are sent to conduct surveys. And, since their wages are so low, the government must compensate them by paying them extra..”Ranjana Nirula, ASHA Worker to Hindustan Times
Why ASHAs Are Crucial
With the nationwide lockdown forcing migrant labourers in the cities to pack their bags and return homes, the workload of ASHA workers has only increased.
"In the last one week, so many people have returned home from Mumbai and Pune. We have been instructed to monitor their temperature and see if they have cold, or cough. If they do, we tell them to stay inside their homes for at least two weeks. Keeping them inside the house is the most difficult ," Maushmi Patil, who oversees 50 ASHA workers in Maharashtra’s Solapur district, told The Quint.
Most often, state governments depend on the network of ASHAs to trace people with travel history or those who would have come in contact with such people.
Like in Uttar Pradesh's Gorakhpur. A man returned from Dubai, earlier in March without informing the authorities. It was an ASHA worker who spotted his return and got in touch with the district administration. After he showed symptoms, his family and him have now been put on a two-week quarantine.
With a recent spike in domestic violence cases during the coronavirus lockdown, North East Network (NEN), a women’s rights organisation that operates in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam, recently roped in accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers when their counsellors could not step out to help a woman in distress, reported IndiaSpend.
Speaking to the portal, NEN’s Assam state director Anurita Pathak said that given that ASHA workers are at the frontline of India’s COVID-19 prevention work, they be alerted and “respond rapidly” to any domestic violence instance.
Long Hours For Menial Pay
In the current times, the ASHA workers are toiling tirelessly – their hours have doubled and so has their workload. Despite playing a crucial role, the ASHAs are considered “honorary volunteers” and are paid a sum of Rs 2,000 per month for the tasks performed.
“The district authorities tell us to get some other work. In agriculture season, we try and find some work. But going from house to house is not easy, even without corona, it takes six hours to complete rounds. I must also tell that the money doesn’t come to us on time every month. I don’t think we are being unfair in asking for Rs 18,000 per month.”ASHA Worker
After years of protest, the ASHAs in Andhra Pradesh earn Rs 10,000, one of the highest pay scaled in India for sucj workers. While ASHAs in Karnataka earn a fixed sum of Rs 6,000. Maharashtra, those in Maharashtra earn Rs 2,000 per month.
ASHA workers across India have two single demands – a minimum monthly wage of Rs 18,000 and recognition as a full-time government employee.
‘We Want Respect’
Despite the lack of money and equipment, the ASHAs in urban areas face another kind of challenge. While collecting information during the pandemic, these women are heckled and their credentials are questioned. Like the incident in Bengaluru on 2 April when two ASHA workers were allegedly attacked.
One of the heckled ASHAs, Krishnaveni told The Quint that she, along with others, had been working in the area for the last 10 days, going door-to-door.
“They snatched our mobiles and bags, and didn’t let us call anyone. We alerted one of our colleagues nearby and finally, the hoysala (police vehicle) was able to come. It was very upsetting, we are coming here for them, and so many people are against us, they are torturing us. Such people should be punished,” said Krishnaveni, who has been an ASHA worker for over five years.
In another incident, Anitha, an ASHA worker in Hyderabad allegedly faced verbal abuse when she was conducting the survey.
As India grapples with over 4,000 cases and 100 deaths as on 7 April, makes it even more crucial that the foot-soldiers are protected, as we await a government policy for the care-workers.