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The Coronavirus Fighters: Six Frontline Health Workers Speak to The Wire

The Coronavirus Fighters: Six Frontline Health Workers Speak to The Wire

“No matter though our decks be swept
And mast and timber crack
We can make good all loss except
The loss of turning back.”

– Rudyard Kipling in his ‘Song in Storm’.

They are at the frontlines, struggling with round-the-clock work, insufficient equipment, intensified conditions and fighting the possibility of getting quarantined.

 The role of field workers, surveillance members, scientists, lab technicians, nurses and doctors are crucial in tackling and containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply put, “they help determine the course of crisis,” says epidemiologist A.C. Sugunan who is in charge of the testing centre in Alappuzha, under the National Institute of Virology. 

The work is ceaseless. “Leaves for all health workers stand cancelled and we are in full workforce,” says Dr Manjari Tripathi, head of neurology at AIIMS Hospital in New Delhi. 

A look at the coronavirus dashboard of the John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre shows the number of those affected ticking upwards steadily and scarily. 

As of March 24, 1:45 pm, the deadly virus has killed 16,563 people across the world and infected 3,81,621. India has reported 511 cases of infected persons and nine deaths. The former includes medicos. 

These are the stories of healthcare workers in various capacities, fighting the war.

Dr Yunus Sheriff
COVID-19 core team
Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases

For most of us, the national lockdown has left us cooling our heels at home. But 31-year-old Dr Yunus Sheriff is grappling alone with the pandemic, away from his two kids, one and three.

He has not shared a single light moment with them since January because he ensures that they are asleep and safely in their rooms before he enters his house. Dr Sheriff is practising all that we preach on our social media networks as he deals with what we fear on a day-to-day basis.

On January 22, 2020, when the first coronavirus suspect of Karnataka landed at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru, Dr Sheriff recalls that they immediately got ready with their protective gears and testing kits. The first positive case of the infection in Karnataka was confirmed on March 8 and then began the non-stop marathon involving the doctor and his team.

While the rest of the country is working from home, Dr Sheriff does not remember the last time he stayed at home for a significant amount of time. His team has been pulling all-nighters and have not taken a day off. They don’t know when this battle will end or when they will get to go home. To top it, are ceaseless calls from panicking patients and staff alike. 

Through it all, Dr Sheriff and his team persist.

He has help from family. “My wife is a pathologist and has been a source of immense support. I am totally cut off from any domestic routine,” he says, expressing relief that his parents are in Dubai at this hour of crisis.

Also read: Coronavirus Updates, March 24: Northeast Reports First Case; India’s Death Toll Rises to 10

“When I am at work, my whole focus is on improving the patient’s condition,” he says adding that he is fully aware that he himself needs to not be affected in order to continue the treatment. 

His advice is simple for all those running away from quarantine. “You can stay connected in isolation. You can tweet, Facebook and do video calls with your family and inspire others. This can be the time to pause and tap your personal goals,” he adds.

Roshma Vamadevan
Staff nurse grade 1
COVID-19 core team
Kozhikode Beach Government General Hospital 

Walking into an isolation ward alone, with a single bag, a heavy heart and an anxious mind can be painful. No one knows it better than nurse Roshma Vamadevan.

Till the test results are out, anyone with symptoms is kept in an isolated room, which has a single window. In charge of it is Vamadevan, who ensures that there is always casual conversation flowing inside.

Nurse Roshma Vamadevan.

The hardest task, for Vamadevan, is convincing people to get quarantined. The incident of a 68-year-old woman who returned from Saudi Arabia and tested positive but refused to get admitted is seared in her mind.

Reshma stays alone. “I have sent my sons, studying respectively in Class 5 and 8 to my mother’s house. My parents and husband are paranoid but their prayers keep me strong,” she says.

She keeps in touch with near and dear ones on the phone. “They avoid meeting me. There are days when the thing in common between me and my patients is this isolation.”

Vamadevan says that protection from the virus comes at a heavy price.

“We cannot wear those gloves, masks and knee length footwear for more than an hour, especially in a room without much air circulation. The protective gear is my saviour but it is very uncomfortable and heavy. We cannot drink water or use the restroom. I shun food till I am done with the day’s shift. The gear has to be worn and removed with utmost care ensuring no skin contact and then cautiously packed in a yellow biohazard bag.”

Vamadevan protects the infected with the timely supply of medicines, nutritious meals, hand sanitisers, masks and mosquito nets, but more importantly she is their emotional lifeline. “While I encourage them to do video-calls with their family members and a psychologist who is a call away, I also try to build their fortitude.”

The 36-year-old nurse misses her kids a lot. “I don’t feel guilty for not spending time with them as it is my duty to keep the whole community safe. I did it during the Nipah virus outbreak and I will continue doing whenever I am needed.”

Vamadevan continues to receive calls from her grateful coronavirus-free patients for helping them through the tough phase.   

 “The health team is our backbone and are in a highly stressful and responsible job which involves living isolated lives and going through emotional lows. They have helped us tackle every outbreak with their unmatched dedication,” says Dr Amar Fettle, Nodal Officer for Health, Kerala.

Dr Resmi M.S.
In charge of the COVID-19 surveillance team
Pathanamthitta district control cell, Kerala

Panthanamthitta, one of the richest districts in Kerala renowned for the Sabarimala temple hit the headlines when a family that  arrived from Italy on February 29 evaded the health screening at the airport and infected many. 

Dr Resmi with her daughter.

Dr Resmi is in charge of a 450-member COVID-19 surveillance team in the Panthanamthitta, that traces every one who came in contact with an infected person. They counsel them on necessary precautions including self-quarantine for 28 days and ask them to report to the designated hospital in case they develop any symptom. During that time frame, the team continues to follow up. Her team consists of doctors from government and private hospitals, community medicine experts, health inspectors, and IT professionals, among others. 

They started their surveillance way back in December 2019 when COVID-19 had struck China.

“We did not get any positive case  until the family from Italy tested positive on March 8. They had travelled to 17 locations in and out of the district meanwhile. We immediately went to meet them at the isolation ward. After a lot of counselling, we could recover the details of contacts of all the people that the family had met after arriving in India. With many missing links, we took cues from registers, bills, CCTV images and by day five we had ended up tracing over 1,000 contacts of the family,” she says.

Persuading those contacts to self-quarantine was a herculean task. To ensure that the self-quarantine was in place, her team members checked on the families everyday. But they soon realised that they were breaking it to buy essential/non-essential commodities. They quickly formed a team of volunteers who door-delivered their needs. A separate surveillance team was still checking up on quarantine breakers.

“We work  24×7 to contain this pandemic. It is very challenging and exhausting. I haven’t been able to be with my nine-month-old baby for weeks. I know my job is important because we have seen what the virus has done in other countries. Corona is no more just a health issue but a social one and being responsible is the only way out of this.”

Dr C. Nagaraj
Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases

The scare is so all pervading that scores of people turn up at the Bengaluru hospital demanding to be tested everyday. But Dr C. Nagaraj says that patients alone are not to be blamed for this. Private doctors who refer them need to use the terms ‘screening’ and ‘testing’ cautiously, as all patients who come to the government hospital have to be screened first and only then they will be tested, if required.

As their prescription mentions ‘to be tested’, the misinformed patients directly want to jump to the second stage. Sometimes police intervention is needed to deal with them.

But this is all in a day’s work.

Dr. Nagaraj now says that the full form of “VIP in hospitals now is a virus infected person who needs to be tested and quarantined on a priority basis”.

“When we get recommendation calls from VIPs for exemptions to be made, the cases of virus infected persons get ignored, which increase our challenges manifold.”

“Test kits are to be used with discretion and we cannot randomly test everyone.  The hospital has now come up with a flu clinic that will help distinguish cases of flu from those of coronavirus due to the above issues.”

Dr Nagaraj believes that the minimum requirement by the medical army to combat this deadly virus are protective gears and the same has to be ensured by all hospitals. “If there is a shortage of masks then it will be very hard for doctors to treat patients as both will end up in risk, and we cannot afford them getting infected. Therefore, the entire staff of 22 doctors, 60 staff nurses and six counsellors at the hospital are well-equipped.”

Dr Pawan Kumar
COVID-19 core team
Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital,
New Delhi

Dr Pawan Kumar, a respiratory specialist, is heading the Capital’s Nodal Centre for Coronavirus at Dr RML Hospital. “The hardest aspect of the novel coronavirus infection is that unlike previous viral outbreaks of H1N1, there is no cure till date and we had to draft new guidelines.”


Dr Pawan Kumar

“Just like the army cannot leave the battleground when there is a war, so can’t doctors when there is a pandemic. The core team’s job is exhausting and time consuming. Treatment apart, it involves the arduous tasks of screening, testing, sample collection, admissions, paperwork, counselling, answering patient queries among others.”

Dr. Pawan knows that it is natural to fear isolation but he says that people should understand that quarantine facilities were arranged during emergency conditions and so they cannot be luxurious.

“I just request people to keep the community’s needs above their own.”

Dr B. Ansari
COVID-19 core team
King George’s Medical University

Dr B. Ansari.

When a 25-year-old junior resident doctor in the core team of COVID-19 at the King George’s Medical University tested positive, a wave of natural fear ran through the doctors.

Dr B. Ansari was among them. He knows that he and his colleagues are always just one step away from being quarantined. “But the thought of getting affected by the virus cannot affect my duty.”

Dr. Ansari is clear that the biggest threat of COVID-19 is being a carrier. The immunity level of everyone differs and it can end up being fatal for many. The fear of infecting others made Dr Ansari shift to a separate accommodation, away from his 80-year-old parents.

“It is catastrophic for the elderly and those with low immunity. I am extremely careful around my family. They are glued to the television and get very anxious about me but they are very proud of my service and that makes up for everything.”

This is the time when the media should report very responsibly as panic among people has hit the roof, he feels. The Whatsapp forwards should also be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. “The treatment of COVID-19 effectively begins before getting admitted as precaution is the cure here. The infection can be prevented by ensuring basic hygiene like hand washing and social distancing. This battle is not just for the doctors but all of us. The next one month is critical to contain the outbreak from stage 2 to stage 3.  Every person who breaches quarantine, infects a minimum of 10 persons,” says the doctor.

For him as for the others, the battle rages.

Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism. 

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