ASHA, an all-female army of healthcare volunteers, has played a critical role in fighting the coronavirus outbreak in India. After months of underpayment, lack of protection provided, and harassment, about 6,00,000 ASHA workers went on strike.
In addition to the health workers and police officers that come to mind when we think of people fighting at the front lines during the global pandemic, there is an all-woman army of contact-tracing health volunteers who have played a critical role in controlling the virus. This group of frontline workers went on strike for two days starting August 7th, to draw attention to their plight.
These ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) workers, have over the years helped eradicate polio from the country and minimise the percentage of women dying during childbirth.
During the coronavirus outbreak they have been conducting house-to-house surveys and screening of suspected patients across slums, hard-to-access rural areas, and often even inside containment zones, despite the lack of protective gear at their disposal. Several of the ASHA workers have died due to contracting coronavirus.
If the ASHA’s discontinued their work, not only could this have catastrophic effects on India’s efforts and containing the virus, but also on multiple other essential health services that are made available to rural households by the ASHA workers.
The Women Are Demanding Adequate And Timely Pay And Protection
“For working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. we get only 2,000 rupees a month and no masks or sanitizer,” says Sulochana Rajendra Sabde, an ASHA in the Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, reported by Bloomberg
Saira Anwar Sheikh, another ASHA in Maharashtra, was given masks, but provided with no gloves or protective gear. After 11 years of service as an ASHA, she died of COVID-19 in June, leaving behind four children and a husband. Her husband has been unable to claim the promised insurance despite multiple trips to local agencies.
They have also had to face heckling and harassment from people who ostracise them for working with infected patients, or because they’re afraid the ASHA will send them to quarantine centres for suspected symptoms.
Sabde had to call the police during a situation when she asked a man for his recent travel history and he turned violent. “People scream at me, curse me and pressure me not to give all the details”.
Their demands include clearing of all pending wages and allowances, adequate safety gear to be provided, legal status to ensure minimum wages, free coronavirus tests for frontline workers, sufficient insurance coverage for all deaths on duty, pension/jobs for dependants of workers who die on duty, and coverage of coronavirus treatments for the entire family.
While the ASHAs are hoping that the strike will improve their situation, very few can actually give up the job entirely during this unexpected economic crisis, despite all the risks.
“Our husbands have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic, so we can’t afford to lose ours too. How else will we feed ourselves and our children?” says Jeet Kaur, an ASHA in Punjab.
Neglecting ASHA Women Is A Neglect Of Accessible Healthcare For Many Indians
The ASHA’s have been a stopgap in the Indian health care system for many years now, delivering essential health services to people who can’t otherwise easily access it.
T. Sundararaman, the global coordinator of the People’s Health Movement, says “They are going to lower-caste households. They are reaching out to women. They are not going to the middle class or the elite. The challenge is to bring attention to what is lost when these people go off the field.”
The neglect of the ASHAs then is a reflection of the disregard meted out to the marginalised and disadvantaged sections of our society.
They hope that the strike will help draw attention to how losing the ASHAs will impact India’s healthcare system, and help them secure their basic rights.
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