Work non-stop or stay at home? For the 18 members of this Kolkata lab, the answer was tough but clear

Ravik Bhattacharya, Atri Mitra
coronavirus, covid 19 kolkata, kolkata lab, kolkata coronavirus lab, Kolkata news, indian express

The 18 lab members handle 500 calls a day apart from testing samples.

Ananya Chatterjee is up at 6 am after working late into the night, leaving her with no time for her eight-month-old baby girl. Madhumati Basu has moved to her parents’ home to be near her workplace. Hasina Banu and Agniva Majumdar handle over 500 phone calls every day. All of them are part of an 18-member team of doctors, virologists and microbiologists at the Regional Virus Research and Diagnostic Laboratory at the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases in Kolkata. This has been their daily routine since February 17, when widespread testing began for the coronavirus.

At the Beleghata office, the team’s workspace includes a small room next to the lab with a round table at the centre surrounded by computers, tabulation sheets, and piles of papers and reports. Phones ring constantly, with queries pouring in from health department officials, government hospitals, and worried city residents. Apart from screening and testing samples, the team processes data and liaises with the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune while keeping state officials and government hospitals in the loop.

“Our work officially starts from 10 am but continues till late into the night. I get to spend only a little time in the morning and in the night with my baby. My mother and domestic help take care of her. But we try to maintain a smile always because what we are doing is very important work, given the situation,” says Ananya, 34, who holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.

“I got married in December, and it takes about two hours to reach the office from my husband’s home in Howrah. In February, I returned to my parents’ home in Sinthi, which is an hour away, because I wanted to be near the lab,” says Madhumati, 21, who has completed a Masters in Molecular Biology.

So far, the team has tested over 200 samples, initially catering to West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Sikkim and the North-Eastern states. But now, with the NIV bringing in other labs in the system, the focus is on West Bengal and Sikkim.

At work, it takes anywhere between three and 24 hours to conduct the tests and issue reports. But at home, the challenge is of a different kind.

“The owner of the apartment where a team member lives asked her to vacate after coming to know that she conducts Coronavirus tests. We had to convince him that we are in a safe environment,” says Hasina, 34, an MD in Medical Microbiology who hails from Murshidabad. “We have told our families that we take extra precautions at work. Yet, they are always concerned,” says Agniva, an MD in Microbiology.

Then there's Rudrak Gupta, whose two-hour drive from office in the west to home at Behala Chowrasta in the east is a “nightmare”. Soumen Mukherjee, 42, who holds a PhD in Biotechnology from IIT-Kharagpur assures that the team is used to handling “very infectious diseases”.

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