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Rediff.com  » News » Frontline Relive Pandemic Nightmare

Frontline Relive Pandemic Nightmare

By Sohini Das, Anjali Singh, Sanket Koul
Last updated on: April 01, 2024 11:05 IST
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Battling the virus, enduring separation from loved ones, and working extended hours became part of the job.

IMAGE: Beads of sweat run down the forehead of a healthcare worker wearing protective gear after she took swabs from residents for a rapid antigen test, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at a residential apartment in Ahmedabad, July 23, 2020. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters
 

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 1,000-mark, 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."

IMAGE: A healthcare worker takes a swab from a woman to test for the COVID-19 in Kolkata, July 23, 2020. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

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 COVID-19 duties," she had said.

"Many were the sole breadwinners for their families."

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 seven-year-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.

IMAGE: A healthcare worker wearing protective gear squeezes the sweat out of his face masks as he takes a break from taking swab from the residents for rapid antigen test, at a residential area in Ahmedabad, July 24, 2020. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

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 negative-pressure ICUs is unbearably hot. Many staff members developed allergies from wearing gloves," D'Souza said.

"Easy-to-eat food and drinks were provided in antechambers attached to the Covid-19 wards, where nurses took their breaks."

The COVID-19 lockdown took a toll on frontline workers' mental health.

Dr Lancelot Pinto, a consultant pulmonologist and epidemiologist at the P D Hinduja Hospital and Medical Research Centre in Mahim, north central 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," Dr Pinto said.

Another doctor said her daughter still resents her for not being around when she had Covid-19.

Dr 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."

IMAGE: Healthcare workers wearing PPE are showered with flower petals by the residents to show gratitude towards the frontline workers fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, on the occasion of National Doctor's Day in Kolkata, July 1, 2020. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

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.

Dr Pinto reflected that even post-pandemic, patients whom he 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."

Moolchand, an ambulance driver at a community health centre in Mathaniya, Jodhpur, recalled the daunting task of transporting COVID-19 patients when even their families hesitated to approach them.

"We transported 15 to 20 patients every day. I was separated from my family, who urged me to return," he said.

"We scarcely had time to eat, drink, or even use the restroom during the day since we wore PPEs constantly."

"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."

Reshma Tewari, chief of the critical care unit and ICU at Artemis Hospital, Gurugram, recounted drafting her will while treating patients during the pandemic.

"My husband stood like a rock by my side, ensuring I was pampered like never before," she said.

"I now feel stronger, more resilient, and in greater control of my life. I shared my drafted will with my husband and son about six months ago, and we laughed, putting it behind us."

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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Sohini Das, Anjali Singh, Sanket Koul
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