Covid-19 and the heroic role of women health workers | Opinion
India’s army of community health workers feels invisibilised despite the critical role they play in fighting Covid-19
Sunita Rani knows the meaning of hard work. As an accredited social health activist (Asha) worker, her days would start at 7 am, distributing supplements to pregnant women, taking them for check-ups and to give birth in hospitals, tracking their children’s weight and immunisation, even advising young wives about contraception.
Then the coronavirus struck and “hard work” took on a whole new meaning.
Since March, Sunita has done 11 rounds of interviews among the 1,000 people under her care. She has walked up to five-km a day, telling people to stay home, documenting the elderly and the sick, monitoring for symptoms, checking on those who need medicine.
“In the early days, there were no masks so I wrapped my face with my chunni,” she said on the phone from Sonepat, Haryana.
A single mother of two, she had to deal with the anger of her extended family: “You will bring the disease home,” they told her. Their fears seemed to come true when an Asha worker in Kaithal tested positive and couldn’t get admitted in a hospital, “We aren’t even guaranteed health care in government facilities,” said Sunita.
Then, local communities got angry and turned on the Asha workers. People had run out of rations. They were afraid. In May, when an Asha worker pasted a quarantine sticker outside the home of a person who had tested positive in Butana village, the family attacked her with a steel pipe.
“We aren’t robots. You can’t press our buttons and expect us to perform,” said Sunita. On August 7, 600,000 Asha workers and 100,000 anganwadi workers went on strike across India. Their demands: Better pay, health insurance and protective gear.
The women feel invisiblised during the pandemic, Bhanupriya Rao, founder of Behenbox that conducted a 16-state survey of Asha workers along with website Article14, told me: “They want rights but they also want respect.”
India has 100,000 Asha workers, 1.3 million anganwadi workers and another 1.2 million anganwadi helpers — all women. A majority of this force entrusted with improving maternal and child health come from impoverished backgrounds: Dalit, Adivasi, single mothers.
As “volunteers”, they receive an “honorarium” of between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000. In April, the government announced a one-time Rs 1,000 payment for all Covid-related work. Two states, Andhra Pradesh and Assam, have yet to pay, said Rao.
When we think of front-line warriors, we tend to think of doctors and nurses. There are no candles for India’s grassroots health workers, the ones on the ground with links to their community, monitoring, checking, fighting a global enemy at personal risk with little protection, less money and zero acknowledgment.
And yet, they play a pivotal role, especially now as the pandemic spirals out of urban centres. If we are to win this battle, we need to strengthen this force, not steamroller it.
“We only want to be able to work with dignity,” Sunita said. That is not a lot to ask for.