First person: How Delhi’s ‘essential’ workers are coping with Covid-19 crisis
An insight into how the essential workforce of New Delhi has to say about the coronavirus lockdown.Updated: Mar 24, 2020 22:16 IST
It was a usual workday for people delivering essential services. Vegetable sellers, riders delivering food, bus drivers, police personnel, chemists and sanitation workers, among others, were out on Delhi’s street on Tuesday, discharging duties even as the national capital hunkered down due to a lockdown imposed in the wake of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Here’s what some of them had to say.
Lucky Sagar, 23 (chemist)
Sagar, who works at a pharmacy in south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar neighbourhood, says the number of customers has recorded a drop due to the lockdown. “Most visitors are regular clients who are diabetic, or suffer from long-term ailments such as hypertension, or those related to kidney and liver. Other than that, the demand is high only for two products — hand sanitisers and anti-pollution masks,” he says.
Sagar makes sure to always wear surgical masks and use one-time surgical gloves. “You never know. And the virus can get hold of you when you expect the least. So, one has to be always cautious, especially in dealing with customers who come looking out for paracetamols or anti-allergic medicines. Cold, cough and flu-like symptoms cannot be taken lightly at this point of time,” he says.
Business has gone down, he says, and fears that he will face a financial crisis for the lockdown. “But at least I have a job. Look at the migrant labourers, how they have been leaving the city. I just need to ensure that I am protected from the virus,” he says.
Danish Ali, 27 (delivery agent with Zomato)
The Delhi government, in its order imposing the lockdown, has categorised food delivery as an “essential service”. But the time and effort Ali has to invest to deliver an order has increased a lot, with many neighbourhoods closing their gates to outsiders fearing the spread of Covid-19. Also, he is getting fewer orders. On Tuesday, it took Ali more than an hour to reach Mayur Vihar Phase-I from a restaurant in Noida at a time when roads are almost empty. But with borders sealed, he had to navigate barriers and a team of policemen, who stopped him.
“I had to produce my identity card. I know that the government has allowed food delivery, but how do you argue with police if they stop you? I have never faced such hassle,” Ali, who has been working with Zomato for the last two years, says.
When he finally managed to reach the delivery address, he was met with another challenge: locked gates.
“We have to call customers to the main gates and ask them to collect their orders; all at the risk of spoiling our rating,” Ali, a resident of east Delhi’s Pandav Nagar, says.
“We get Rs 30 for every delivery, along with some additional benefits for the distance we travel to deliver the order. But now that people are not ordering, how will we feed our families,” he says.
Leela Dhar, 34 (Delhi Police head constable)
Dhar is posted at Madhu Vihar police station. His family lives in Mayur Vihar Phase-3, less than 5km from the police station. But Dhar has not been home for the past five days as he fears that he is exposed to the Covid-19 infection due to the nature of his work.
“Even though I take all precautions to keep myself sanitised and safe, chances are still there that I will get infected as I work on the ground. I don’t want to risk the lives of my parents, wife, and two minor sons. I stay in the police station barrack with other colleagues,” Dhar says.
According to Dhar, the Delhi Police have made arrangements for the hygiene and safety at police stations, and the same for the personnel. Apart from regular sanitisation, every official gets masks and hand sanitisers. “We change our mask every second or third day. Each of us keeps small bottles of hand sanitisers in our pockets and use it at regular intervals,” Dhar adds.
Satender Kumar Sharma, 48 (government bus driver)
Sharma, a 48-year-old cluster bus driver, has been able to convince his wife that his job is crucial, but he doesn’t know how to convey to his passengers that they must keep a safe distance from him. “The passengers are in the habit of de-boarding from the front gate. They are unwilling to let go of that habit despite my shouting that they can get off from the rear gate,” says Sharma, a resident of Loni in Ghaziabad.
He has now begun urging them to remain on their seats till their destination arrives. “But they line up near the driver’s seat several minutes before the arrival of their stops,” he says.
“We have not been provided any masks or sanitisers by the government. I had to purchase my own mask on realising the risk I was exposed to,” Sharma, who has a wife and two children, adds.
At the bus terminals, however, people can avail hand wash, soap and sanitisers.
While he eats home-cooked food throughout the day, he rues the unavailability of tea anywhere along his route — from Sarai Kale Khan to Nand Nagri. By 1pm on Tuesday, he completed four trips —to and fro twice — on the 30km route.
For most parts, the bus ran empty. “There were passengers in the morning, but for the second round, the bus ran mostly empty,” says Sharma, adding that a total of about 35 passengers boarded the bus during the day.
While Sharma manages to enter Delhi from the Loni border in mornings after showing his identity card, he is worried about the return. “On Monday night, I had to leave my motorcycle at the Delhi-Loni border because the police wouldn’t let me into Uttar Pradesh. I then parked my motorcycle at the border and walked 2km to reach home,” he says.
Rakesh Kumar, 25 (sanitation worker)
Kumar, who maintains dhalaos (community dustbins) in Shakarpur (East Delhi), says he is not scared of coronavirus. “We deal with stench, flies, social isolation and diseases that come as a package with our job every day.”
On Tuesday, he wore a flimsy mask, no protective boots or gloves. The East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) says it has provided some protective gear to the sanitation staff on its rolls, but not to those who work privately with it. There are around 3,000 private sanitation workers who pick up garbage from colony bylanes, and also sweep and segregate trash in dhalaos.
But Kumar says he is scared for his wife and two children, who stay in the shanties next to a dhalao in Pandav Nagar.
“My children are very small, just 2 and 6 years of age. What if they fall ill? My wife and I had decided that we will go back home to our village in Bihar’s Nalanda, but at that very time the trains were cancelled. Livelihood is very difficult here but back in the village, we have a small land and grow our own wheat, vegetables and pulses. We could have definitely survived on our own there for a while and stayed with my family,” he says.
Kumar says he has noticed “too many masks and gloves” dhalaos over the past few days. “That keeps reminding me of Covid-19, though I keep trying to forget about it and the dangers that come with my job,” he says.
He says he misses his two friends who cleaned the dhalaos with him. “They are too scared to come to work. At least we get paid Rs 12,000 per month for this job. I don’t know how my friends are earning a living now. I haven’t been able to speak to them in the past week. I hope they are safe wherever they are,” he says.
Anil Kumar, 33 (sprays sanitiser at bus terminal)
When Kumar was tasked with spraying sanitisers in buses at the Sarai Kale Khan interstate bus terminal around March 10, he felt hurt on seeing other people maintain a distance from him. But on Tuesday, he was glad that the people stayed away. “Now, I myself avoid going near anyone,” Kumar says.
Before the lockdown was announced, Kumar would spray as many as 100 DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) and interstate buses in a day. Now, he sprays seven-eight buses a day. Interstate bus services have been suspended and only a few DTC buses are on the road. “But the risk is much greater now,” he says.
Every bus is sprayed each time it enters this terminal. Spraying a bus properly takes about 10 minutes, says Kumar, and he is extremely cautious during that process. “I cover my face with a mask and my hands with gloves. I make sure I don’t touch any rods or seats and keep my hands only on the spray machine,” Kumar says.
When the job is done, he is cautious to ensure that the gloves removed by him do not touch his other body parts. “I wash my hands with soap for nearly two minutes after that,” says Kumar, who bathes four times a day and cleans his clothes every day.
Every once in a while, he also sprays the seats at the terminal which are used by his colleagues, drawing their appreciation. “If they are safe, I am safe,” Kumar says.
And at times, he gets to carry the spray machine to his home and sanitise his residence. “My family feels safe when I do that,” he says.