GUWAHATI: When Somichon and her fellow nurses would step out of their rented accommodations in Kolkata, the neighbours would call them "Corona" and cover their faces.
The situation was no better at the private hospitals where these young nurses from Manipur worked. Discrimination at the hands of the management and racial abuse by people on the streets led to some 300 nurses leaving the city.
Early this month, when a sick Somichon (22) complained that she was possibly infected with the COVID-19 virus, she had approached her hospital management but they dismissed it as flu.
"When I felt I was showing the symptoms of COVID-19, I had approached my hospital management. They said I was suffering from common flu and gave me some antibiotics. I was not tested," the nurse told The New Indian Express from a bed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Manipur's capital Imphal.
She was found to be positive on May 15, a day after swab samples were collected and tested following her arrival in the state with a number of fellow nurses from Kolkata. The nurse from Manipur's Naga-majority Kamjong district, who passed out last year, had joined the Kolkata hospital in January this year.
"There was hardly anything in my hospital to ensure the safety of nurses. I was working in the ICU and they gave us only hand gloves but those were also not sufficient. We were not provided with masks and there was no hand sanitiser either. I have no doubt I had contracted the virus from a patient in the ICU of my hospital," Somichon, who is recovering, said.
She said the nurses returned to Manipur because of the discrimination and racial abuse they had to face.
"When we would cross a road in the city, people would cover their faces. They were afraid of us. Some would call us Corona. The salaries of nurses have been held up. They were not given sufficient protective gears while on duty and discriminated against by the landlords and neighbours. So, basically, these are the reasons why the Manipuri nurses are leaving the city by the dozens," Somichon said.
Y Samita, who is serving as an assistant nursing superintendent at a Kolkata hospital, said the Manipuri nurses underwent both clinical and non-clinical discrimination.
"By wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and four-five layers of masks, the nurses are working for 12 hours at a stretch. They can neither have their food nor use the washroom on duty. This upset them," Samita said.
She alleged the quarantine protocols were also flouted by the hospital managements. After seven days of COVID-19 duty, when the nurses should be sent to an isolated place for 14 days' quarantine, they were made to stay in the same hostel with other nurses who were taking care of other cases. So, there is a feeling of insecurity among the nurses, she said.
"There is no clarity if the hospital management will take care of the treatment of a nurse in the event of infection. We have four nurses who tested positive and all of them were sent to government facilities," Samita said.
She alleged that there had been several cases where the house owners evicted nurses fearing them to be carriers of the virus. According to her, some 1,200 nurses from Manipur are working in both government and private hospitals in Kolkata.
"However, a majority of the nurses chose to stay in the profession. They are performing their duties," she added.
Group Capt (retd) Kshetrimayum Shyamkesho Singh, who is the president of Manipuris in Kolkata, said the Manipuri nurses were always targetted because of their oriental features. He said this increased during the present crisis. He said there had even been a case of a nurse being spat upon after racial slurs were hurled at her.
"There have been a few occasions when they were refused entry at their own society flat hostel. When contacted, hospital administration did not come for help and police help had to be sought. In some cases, they were even refused to use lifts or not allowed to come out to buy essential groceries for food," he said.
Low salary, food shortages during quarantine, personal safety, depression, parental anxiety etc are the other reasons why they are leaving the city, Singh added.