End the haunting silence

Divya Balan, who teaches migrant studies at Flame University in Pune, talks about supporting our nurses working in other countries
End the haunting silence

KOCHI: We celebrate International Nurses Day today, as India is facing a shortage of nurses in Covid frontline duty. As per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare data, there are only 1.7 nurses per 1,000 people in the country. One of the main reasons for this shortage is their migration to high-income countries like the US, UK, Germany and the Gulf, among other places. 

They are not to be blamed for looking for better opportunities abroad, as many of them are frustrated with the heavy workload of underpaying Indian hospitals. The attitude of a few hospital managements towards their staff is questionable. They and patients often undervalue the services offered by nurses. The mounting education loan interest and the financial constraints to make ends meet leave them with no option but to fly out, even if it is to conflict zones like Iraq, Nigeria, Congo, or Libya.

Most of them hail from underprivileged families. The trials and tribulations faced by the nurses working overseas, especially women, in their professional and social lives are often disregarded in the mainstream media and policy narratives.

Discussions on migration-development nexus typically revolve around the remittances sent by the male migrants, and thus the contributions of female nurses to the development of the source and destination economies are unacknowledged. On the other hand, male nurses are overshadowed by the hypervisibility of male migrants in other professions.

The Covid crisis has revealed that the migration experiences of Indian nurses are not only economic but also sociocultural, physical, mental and environmental. Though the pandemic has surged the global demand for Indian nurses, they are highly regarded in their destination countries, their workload has increased disproportionately.

During the surge of Covid cases, they faced a shortage of personal protective equipment, anxiety about their safety, elevated stress due to overstretched clinical facilities, extended shifts and exhaustion, the physical exertion of wearing the protective gear, the anguish of witnessing the sufferings daily and so much more. Above all, the concerns about the well-being of family members back home overwhelmed them beyond comprehension. However, the policy frameworks of India largely exclude the migrant nurses from its ambit and put them at the mercy of the destination countries.

This is time for us, as a society to acknowledge the incomparable service provided by the migrant health care workers to the countries they have migrated to and the growth of India through their economic and social remittances. For ages, we have considered women as mere beneficiaries of migration. The grand narratives of women following male migrants overseas as dependents excluded them from the legal definitions of ‘migrant’ and national policy formulations.

However, the case of Indian migrant nurses proves that they are economic actors and primary breadwinners for the family. It is high time to include them in the economic narratives of the country and execute well-targeted measures that ensure their safety and welfare at all phases of migration and return.

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The New Indian Express