Editor's note: As the second wave of coronavirus infections ravages parts of India, millions of front-line workers and citizens are caught up in the middle, providing their services to distressed families on one hand while trying to cope themselves on the other. This is part six of a series profiling the stories of these people.
Kolkata: Wearing just a piece of scrub over a sari, chappals on her feet and a surgical mask held together with a safety pin, Anju runs from one ward to another. She has witnessed multiple crises in her 21-year long career as a hospital cleaning/ housekeeping staff but the sheer scale and magnitude of the current pandemic are unprecedented even for her.
Anju is an employee of Nil Ratan Sircar hospital -- one of the largest government-run medical facilities in the city. She was assigned to the hospital's emergency department at the onset of the second wave of the pandemic.
"I have never seen so many deaths together in my career," she says as her tired eyes go wide with disbelief.
"Earlier most calls to clean a bed used to come because the patients would get released to go home. Now, we do it too often because patients are dying like flies. It is painful to watch so many people bring their loved ones, crying and begging for help," she adds.
West Bengal has been left gasping for oxygen cylinders and ICU beds for COVID patients after the state witnessed a steep rise in cases from April, mostly due to the month-long Assembly election in the state. On 10 May, the state recorded 19,445 cases and 134 deaths.
Empty oxygen cylinders at Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital. Firstpost/ Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
In this battle against the virus, the frontline workers are often put on a pedestal, social media and messaging apps flooded with praises and tributes. The ground reality, however, couldn't paint a starker contrast.
Anju works a 12-hour shift till 8 pm, 7 days a week, without essential protective gear such as the personal protective equipment (PPE) kit.
"The hospital is supposed to provide masks and gloves but they often run out of them. How much can we buy with our money, we get paid so little," she rues.
Apart from the obvious health concerns that come with operating in such close proximity of victims of a highly contagious disease, the mental health of these 'invisible' frontline workers are also ignored by authorities.
Anju, a single mother, makes a 10-kilometre journey home every day from work. But the possibility of infecting her 19-year-old daughter often torments her at night.
"My husband died 6 years ago. We live in a one-room rented house. My daughter is in college. This is how we live with whatever little I make," she says. On some days when the hospital corridors are flooded with COVID-19 patients, Anju sleeps in the verandah, hoping the virus would not reach her daughter.
An elderly patient waiting for her turn to get admitted at Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital. Firstpost/ Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
In another lane of the hospital compound, Lokesh can be seen pushing a cart through the flurry of parked ambulances and a growing crowd of people. The 28-year-old has been working with the hospital for two years. He was earlier employed as an ambulance driver, but the covid scare forced him to switch departments. Now he transports documents and does sanitisation work in the compound. The duty lines, he said, have been blurred.
As a Dalit man who lives in a mostly upper-caste neighbourhood, he is frequently subjected to stigmatisation. In West Bengal, contractual sanitation workers belong to the Scheduled and Other Backward Castes. The prevailing societal discrimination along with the scare of COVID-19 has furthered their seclusion. Lokesh too carries the weight of oppression.
For seven days a week, Lokesh walks to the hospital at 7.45 am, finishes his duty by 2.30 pm and returns home to a family of four. For the rest of the evening, the sole breadwinner looks for odd jobs to make ends meet. "Since the first lockdown, access to those meagre jobs has also dwindled," he laments.
The West Bengal government, in a bid to curtail the spread of the virus, introduced a partial lockdown to restrict the movement of people.
"Does a salary of Rs 8,500 suffice during the pandemic? We have asked the management to increase the pay but the higher-ups don't pay heed to our words," he added before leaving for the day's remaining work.