My mobile phone rings while I’m in the middle of work. It is the delivery man from Amazon. I had ordered some computer peripherals which were slightly expensive. Since my landlady’s house was out of bounds due to COVID, I had provided my office address. I ask the man where he is. He mentions a distant hospital gate. I ask him to come to the correct place. He says he is not allowed to come in. I ask him to give the phone to the security guard. “No. You don’t understand. The guard isn’t stopping me. I can’t come in,” he says. It takes me a moment to understand what he is saying and explain things to him. But he cuts me off half-way and refuses to pick up my calls. A moment later I receive a message from Amazon saying that delivery will be attempted later as the customer was unavailable.
My colleagues tell me they have experienced this behaviour last year during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. Resident doctors were asked to vacate homes for fear that they would bring in infection. One friend tells me how taxi after taxi refused to ferry him to the workplace, until he changed the address on the app to a nearby metro station. Understandable. The paranoia surrounding hospitals and their ‘unclean’ environment.
This morning I start for work a little early. I want to avoid the blazing sun and so I walk fast until I reach the shade of the tall trees on campus. But then, I have arrived a bit too early. The department hasn’t been opened and I will have to wait. As I turn towards the porch at the entrance to keep my backpack somewhere, I hear a loud voice screaming “hello, hello!” at me. I turn to see a man sitting on the pavement across the road. “Don’t go there. There is a ‘patient’,” he tells me with a knowing look.
I look closely. There is a group of six people standing huddled together. And sitting on the low parapet is a young lady. An old man is lying on the parapet with his head on her lap. He looks tired and ill. But more importantly, he is not wearing a mask.
I step aside and try to figure out what the issue is from the bits and pieces I overhear. A fierce argument is on. Half of them are advising the lady to take the man home. The remaining want him to be admitted here. Apparently, he had been admitted there the previous day, but for some reason, he had decided to walk out of the ward. Now that bed has been given to someone else. He has been lying on that parapet all night. And while they advise him, it is apparent from the phone conversations happening on the sidelines that none of the relatives want to take him home. There is no place for him to go. He is angry and belligerent. He refuses to wear his mask. He refuses to listen to anyone. I’m counting five more people exposed to the virus thanks to his unreasonable behaviour. An attendant from the ward who is responsible for shifting dead bodies, comes and informs them that a patient has died. So a bed might be empty. They could try requesting them for a bed again.
The fear created by this tiny microbe is huge. Understandably so. People are trying to avoid being infected by all means. Even when it now seems impossible to do so.
And then my gaze goes to the many sanitation workers dressed in blue uniforms. Every day, they are there before any one else arrives. Some are given the task of sanitizing our workplaces daily. Others clean the toilets, the corridors and the streets. Their counterparts from the municipal corporations work without fail around our homes. Cleaning the mess we leave behind and gathering garbage bags. They don’t have the luxury of staying at home when the city is on curfew.
Hardly a few of these workers wear gloves. And these aren’t the disposable kinds either. There is hardly any protective gear with anybody. The ones working within the COVID wards have been provided PPE kits. But what about those who are working outside everyday? They too handle all kinds of biomedical, toxic and infectious waste.
But there is no complaint from them. They come in, quietly do their work, hope to earn enough to bring food for their families, and carry on. And they learn to even smile and laugh through this task. Is there any security or insurance if they fall ill because of this occupational hazard? Is even a bed guaranteed for them in this hospital where they provide their services? No.
This is how we care for the people who keep us safe. It is time we revisit who we place on a pedestal in this country. Remember who stood by us in our worst hours. And don’t forget this once these dark times end.