CHENNAI: It’s 10.30 am. While I am busy dipping a batch of vegetables into a tub of warm, turmeric water a habit cultivated amid the pandemic the doorbell draws my attention. My 53-year-old mother masks up and opens the door. A woman in her mid-30s greets her. The smile hidden behind her mask travels to her eyes. “Epdi irukinge? Veetle elarum nalla irukangala? (How are you? Is everyone in your home doing fine?),” she asks courteously. My mother smiles, nods and as a matter of routine, stretches her hand.
The woman picks a non-touch thermometer and pulse oximeter and screens the temperature and oxygen level. “Ellam seri ah iruku. Veetle yarukavdhu kaichal, irummal iruka? (Everything looks fine. Does anyone at home have fever, cough or other symptoms?),” she asks, intently noting down the details in a long ruled notebook.
After a definite “No” from my mother and “Neengalum odamba pathukonge (You take care too),” the woman smiles, writes her number down on the corner of the wall and prepares to leave. “Call me if you have any COVID- related queries or if someone exhibits symptoms. I will come…don’t hesitate,” she says, reassuringly, as she moves on to the next house.
Tales from localities
This has been Nirmala Raj’s* routine for over a year now. She is among the 12,000-odd workers who’ve been engaged across zones and divisions to administer door-to-door surveillance for COVID-19 symptoms. “I was working in a wedding hall and lost my job during the pandemic. But when I learned that the Corporation was hiring people for this job, I applied and got it. Initially, I thought I had made the wrong choice of taking this task up.
Being a survey staff meant exposure and coming in contact with different people, some, who may even have the virus. I have an elderly father and two children. So, I was naturally worried. However, when I started going out on the streets in April-May 2020, I felt a sense of satisfaction. I was a foot soldier, a frontline worker. I was doing my bit to help the state contain the virus. This optimism kept me going for the next 10 months,” she shares. After working till the end of January 2021, the fever surveillance workers were let off from their duties for two months until April 2021.
“Since the cases were seeing a surge again, we were brought back. The system of checking residents for symptoms, including fever was reintroduced. We’ve been relentlessly working to control the pandemic,” says Nirmala, joining the other workers under the shade of a tree, clarifying the doubts of a few newly recruited staff members. “Some are very young but show so much willingness and effort in learning and helping people,” she says. Like Nirmala, Maria Antony*, a staff member administering a few localities in Nanganallur too wraps her household chores, tends to her children and parents, before heading to the zone’s Corporation office by 7 am, where the 60-odd workers in the ward are briefed by the zonal level officials. “After this, we go to our assigned areas.
The locality that I inspect has become a second home to me. People know me by my first name and treat me like their own. Akka, amma, kozhandhe, ipdi lam enna koopadrapo, sandhoshama irukum (When they call me akka, amma, or child, I feel happy). In these turbulent times, I am fortunate that I have been able to build a wonderful equation with people who were earlier strangers. Last November, when one of the residents gave birth, the family called me and shared the good news. I was elated,” she opens up. However, the tragedies in the families affect all the staffers, she notes.
“In my assigned area, I have seen a few COVID deaths of elderly persons. Some used to live alone and I used to visit them every day to check in on them and share comforting words. They treated me like their own. I’ve always wanted to visit them during a better time and give them all a hug when there was no social distancing. In some houses, that won’t be possible anymore. It affects us. But we try to cope with the loss and move on to helping those who are breathing. Their lives are important too. But we will have everyone in our hearts,” she says, almost tearing up.
In the face of ill-treatment
An average target of 150-200 houses a day, the workers work on a deadline — to clock all the houses and record the data by 2 pm-3 pm. “Though during isolation, the residents might want to speak with us for a few extra minutes but we always have duty on our minds. It’s quite challenging to hit a perfect balance. However, we have learned to manage it well. What sometimes bogs us down is the occasional instance of ill-treatment by residents.
‘Sila peru moonjileye kadhava sathuvanga’ (Some people shut the doors on our faces, literally), some frown and even shoo us away. While we share a good bond with people in most households, it is the status that didn’t come easily. We had to fight fear, apprehensions and suspicion. It was only natural for people to feel that way during such a time. Some even argue with us when the Covid reports are late or positive. So we are answerable to everyone.
Sometimes, it does get to us,” shares Ramlatha*, a homemakerturned- surveillance worker. The 29-year-old was recently at the receiving end of mistreatment by a resident. “The head of the house looked at me and asked me to stop coming to their house because I was ‘darkskinned’. I was shocked by the insensitive and regressive comment. I broke down but the amma of the house fought with her husband and made him apologise to me. I was glad that she stood up for me. I will never forget her. Besides the physical challenges and burnout we face, we’ve also had to handle other problems prevalent in society. But we look at the positives,” she smiles.
Empathy in all forms
Be it the elderly person who has opened up the toilet in his garage for the staffers to use, residents who prepare buttermilk, juice and quick bites for the workers and keep it outside their houses, or households that offer caps and umbrellas for them to beat the heat — acts of kindness, empathy and compassion help the workers brush aside the unpleasant events and serve humanity. “Most times, we politely decline the offer for water or any eatables.
The idea is to not have any type of cross-contamination. The thought that they are understanding of us is what makes the difference and pushes us to do what we do,” says 36-year-old Parimala Sundaram*, a worker in Virugambakkam. While marching towards stemming the coronavirus in the micro level, these workers have also been fighting the nagging fear of contracting the virus and being its carriers. “Since we visit multiple houses, this is a perpetual fear that we carry. It makes me anxious and doesn’t let me sleep during the nights. But, we can only be precautious.
For instance, if it’s a multi-storey apartment, we avoid taking the elevator, we sanitise our hands after covering each floor, door and house. Back home, the clothes are washed in warm water, we drink immunity boosting drinks like the kabasura, have multi-vitamin tablets too. Naange engale pathukita dhane, engalale ungale pathuka mudiyum (Only if we take care of us, can we take care of you),” she shares. Here’s hoping dignity in labour becomes one of the most significant takeaways of the pandemic. *Names changed