Business Standard

Four years after lockdown, frontline workers reflect on pandemic days

- SOHINI DAS, ANJALI SINGH & SANKET KOUL Mumbai/new Delhi, 22 March

In April, Mumbai is typically hot and getting increasing­ly humid. Manjusha Patil (name changed on request) was making her way back from Covid-19 hospital duty to her apartment in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai. Having already completed a gruelling 12-hour shift, Patil felt exhausted, famished, and parched. She slowly ascended the stairs of her 26-storey building, her apartment situated on the 18th floor.

The housing society had barred her from using the elevator, fearing she might transmit the virus to other residents. “Some of my neighbours were sympatheti­c, suggesting that if I sanitised the elevator after each use, it should be safe. However, the popular vote was that I avoid the elevator altogether,” Patil recounted with a sombre expression.

Patil wasn’t the only frontline worker who faced such treatment and ostracisat­ion. Many others weren’t even allowed into their colonies. Several stayed back in hospitals. Ambulance drivers slept in their vans. Many contracted the virus, fell ill or died as they tended to patients.

Approachin­g the fourth anniversar­y of the Covid-19 lockdown on March 24, some of these frontline workers shared their stories from the pandemic – experience­s that they believed had strengthen­ed them and filled them with pride.

India imposed a stringent lockdown when the nationwide Covid-19 cases had barely surpassed 500. By the end of March 2020, cases had exceeded the 1,000mark, and by April, over 10,000 had been reported. The virus was spreading rapidly.

“The greatest concern for us as clinicians was our incomplete understand­ing of the disease’s progressio­n,” Patil said. “After the first week, there was a tendency for the disease to worsen. The general public was scared, so I can’t fault them for their lack of empathy towards frontline workers.”

Struggles and setbacks

Jessica D’souza, chief nursing officer at a leading private hospital in Mumbai, had earlier told Business Standard how May 2020 onwards, numerous nurses had remained in the hospital for months. Some had even left their toddlers back home.

“Most of the nursing staff was from outside Mumbai. Some hadn't even informed their families about their Covid19 duties,” she had said. “Many were the sole breadwinne­rs for their families.”

Doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers say Covid-19 has left them life-altering lessons

A male nursing colleague, who had become a father just about 10 days ago in April 2020, hadn’t been able to meet his newborn due to his Covid-19 duties, D’souza had said.

Shailaja T, a nurse at Jeevan Jyoti Hospital in New Delhi, recalled the agonising days when she had to force herself to stay away from her sevenyear-old son.

Despite the challenges, the nurses said, no frontline worker stepped back from duty. In fact, nurses from other department­s volunteere­d for Covid-19 duty, they said. In large corporate hospitals, each nurse typically attended to one patient on a ventilator, or two others. In a ward, they cared for up to six patients. Manpower shortage posed a significan­t challenge.

By June 2020, healthcare facilities were grappling with a dilemma: While bed capacity could be ramped up, the crisis of manpower shortage was difficult to tackle.

The owner of a mid-sized hospital in Delhi explained, “For 80,000 beds, around 6,000 nurses are required, assuming that one nurse can attend to 15 non-critical patients in a normal ward. With three shifts, nurses need periodic rest.”

Makeshift Covid centres sprung up across India. One such centre in Mulund, an eastern suburb of Mumbai, started operations around July 2020. At its peak, it had 1,650 beds and handled a daily influx of 150-200 Covid patients. By November 2022, this jumbo centre was dismantled. Working in such centres was particular­ly challengin­g since these relied on external sources for medical and basic supplies.

Battling the virus, enduring separation from loved ones, and working extended hours became part of the job. Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the day exacerbate­d the challenges.

“Wearing PPES in negativepr­essure ICUS is unbearably hot. Many staff members developed allergies from wearing gloves,” D'souza said. “Easy-toeat food and drinks were provided in antechambe­rs attached to the Covid-19 wards, where nurses took their breaks.”

Lancelot Pinto, a consultant pulmonolog­ist and epidemiolo­gist at PD Hinduja Hospital and Medical Research Centre in Mahim, Mumbai, recounted heartbreak­ing episodes witnessed during the pandemic.

“A couple was admitted to our hospital, placed on separate floors. The husband passed away, but the family forbade us from informing the wife. Facing her daily enquiries about her husband's well-being was one of the toughest tasks,” Pinto said.

Another doctor said her daughter still resents her for not being around when she had Covid-19. Seema Dhir, senior consultant of Internal Medicine at Artemis Hospital in Gurugram, recalled, "During the second wave of Covid-19, my daughter contracted the virus. With neighbourh­ood restrictio­ns and my overwhelmi­ng workload, I couldn't take leave. My department allowed me to conduct video consultati­ons with Covid-19 patients. I found myself stretched to my limits." Triumph and resilience No matter how nightmaris­h those days were, practicall­y every frontline worker Business Standard spoke to said the crisis made them realise the importance of their work, and got them more motivated and dedicated towards their profession as a life-altering event.

Pinto reflected that even post-pandemic, patients whom she hadn't even treated during Covid-19 would express their gratitude for their efforts. "These instances were the most rewarding, serving as a reminder of the impact we had during such trying times."

“No one would even offer us water; people were so fearful of the virus,” narrated Moolchand (he gave only his first name). “During Covid-19, I felt a profound sense of responsibi­lity to do what was right. I believe I was chosen by a higher power to assist others during such a harrowing time."

 ?? FILE PHOTO: REUTERS ?? Many of the frontline workers contracted the coronaviru­s, fell ill or died as they tended to patients
FILE PHOTO: REUTERS Many of the frontline workers contracted the coronaviru­s, fell ill or died as they tended to patients

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