The return of masses of migrant workers has catapulted thousands of female community health workers to the frontline of coronavirus care in rural Bihar, working without any protective gear.
So-called Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs are directed to visit homes for screening and tutor households about the benefits of social distancing.
“We did not receive masks, gloves or hand sanitizers,” said Manjula Devi, an ASHA worker from Muzaffarpur district, infamous for seasonal deaths of malnourished children due to encephalitis.
“Without any public transport, we are walking across villages tracking people and noting down their details. It’s a strenuous job in this heat.”
And it’s not just the physical strain and health risks which worries them. “Sometimes, families panic when we ask them about symptoms which can lead to isolation,” said Geeta Devi. Fearful villagers, who often equate quarantine with jails, have at times behaved rudely with health workers.
According to Shashi Yadav, president of ASHA Karyakarta Sangh, Bihar, at least two health workers have died during the lockdown.
Shail Kumari died in a road accident while on her way to a community health centre. And 60-year-old Manju Devi from East Champaran collapsed and died while surveying villages on foot.
The 93,000-strong ASHA workforce in Bihar brings public health facilities to the doorstep of rural households. “For now, we are using sarees and gamchhas to cover our mouth and nose,” said Geeta Devi from Sitamarhi district.
The health department has ordered migrants quarantined in government schools. In Darbhanga district, three workers were sacked when they refused to cook for the quarantine facility.
“Some of us had health problems and did not want to work without masks and gloves,” said Ram Kumar Paswan, one of the sacked workers.
ASHAs face a similar predicament—working in underpaid jobs without protective gear, which they fear may expose them to the coronavirus.
Saurav Kumar is a freelance journalist from Muzaffarpur.