On August 24, Gauri Behera was on Covid duty enforcing lockdown restrictions in Pipili when she received a call. She grabbed her bicycle, pedaled 10 km to her home in Sompur village. There she was, her 13-year-old daughter Lopamudra, lying lifeless in her bed.
Gauri was numb for a moment. Then she cried her heart out. Her world had come crashing down. Lopamudra was Gauri’s lone child and the only reason for her to slog eight hours a day for a paltry Rs 300 as a home guard. In her, she found life’s meaning, hope, and dream of a better future. With her gone, life seemed purposeless to Gauri. As she mourned, she suddenly found her answer.
Two days later, on August 26, she was back in the Pipili police station to resume her duty. “I tried my best to protect my daughter but failed. Now I want to do everything I can to ensure that people are protected during these testing times,” says the 37-year-old frontline worker.
A resident of Sompur village, Gauri was assigned Covid duty in March when the pandemic was beginning to spread its tentacles in Odisha. Her job was to enforce lockdown restrictions in Pipili which meant she had to devote a considerable amount of time on the streets since people were resistant to curbs.
“My daughter was undergoing treatment at a hospital when I was given Covid duty. I had to bring her back home since I could not stay with her in the hospital. That's when her condition started to deteriorate,” says Gauri. On the fateful day, she was manning an important thoroughfare when - at around 8 pm - her ailing mother called to inform her that Lopamudra was not responding. Losing no time, she cycled back to the village but the tragedy had struck.
Gauri's husband abandoned her when she was pregnant. After her daughter was born, she decided to give her a better life. She invested all her hopes in the child. But she had an inkling of the cruel twist of fate. Such personal loss could devastate anyone but Gauri is a woman of steel. The bereavement has made her a stronger person. “I cannot undo what has been done. All I can do is learn and move on. I will devote all my time to serve the community,” she said.
Putting aside her personal tragedy, the home guard now puts duty before self. In the last more than seven months of her Covid duty, she has been involved in enforcing lockdown restrictions, managing traffic, and streamlining the rush of patients in local hospitals.
Police personnel have borne the brunt of the pandemic while performing duties. Hundreds of cops have been infected by Covid-19 in Odisha with many even succumbing to the deadly virus. Does this scare her? “God snatched away the most precious gift of my life. Now I have nothing to lose. Who should I be afraid of and why?” Gauri says.
She cycles 20 km up and down from Sompur to Pipili police station every day. On days when she is assigned the 8-hour evening shift (2 pm to 10 pm), Gauri returns home all alone in the night. This has been her daily routine since she joined home guard, an auxiliary force of Odisha Police, 16 years back.
Gauri's dedication to duty and her sacrifice has earned her praise from Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. In a tweet, Naveen had hailed her as an inspiration for others. “Despite losing her 13-year-old daughter, she did not discontinue her duty. Her sacrifice is highly praiseworthy,” the CMO tweeted.
Though she is happy to receive all the appreciation, Gauri wants people to know about her hardships. “I have two ailing parents who are above 60 years of age. Besides, my 30-year-old brother is mentally-challenged. It is my responsibility to take care of them. I get a daily remuneration of `300 which just about feeds my family. But I am not able to afford their medical expenses,” she rues.
The frontline worker feels the Government should provide incentives to cops performing Covid duty. The work of the police force has increased manifold due to
the pandemic. Apart from law and order, police are engaged in enforcing Covid-19 guidelines and containment measures, supplying essentials and contact tracing. The workload and pressure on cops have been intense since the last eight months, she says.
“The times are indeed difficult. If everyone doesn’t work in solidarity, we can never defeat this virus,” Gauri signs off.