For 108 Ambulance staff, a thankless and ‘payless’ job in hot gear

Monday was a long day for the staff of 108 Ambulance. Rajesh’s colleague Manu made the last trip at 1.30am on Tuesday.
Staff of GVK-EMRI 108 Ambulance
Staff of GVK-EMRI 108 Ambulance

KASARAGOD: Rajesh*, a driver of 108 Ambulance, feels like a robot in the white personal protective equipment (PPE) -- specialised clothing for protection against infectious viruses. But for every trip, he has to wear a new set of PPE. With Covid-19 cases on the rise, one cannot be too careful, he says.

“But this is damn hot inside and the goggles hinder the side vision,” he says. To be sure, Kasaragod’s temperature was 33 degree Celsius with 70 per cent humidity on Tuesday. “But we manage,” he says.

Since Monday, 108 ambulances have been crisscrossing the district bringing in Covid-infected persons to the District Hospital in Kanhangad and General Hospital in Kasaragod; and shifting suspected patients to isolation centres at far-flung places.

The Health Department has put all 14 108 ambulances in the district into Covid-19 service since Monday when positive cases doubled to 38. Each ambulance has two staffers, a driver and a nurse.

Monday was a long day for the staff of 108 Ambulance. Rajesh’s colleague Manu made the last trip at 1.30 am on Tuesday.

“I had to bring a patient from Udma to the District Hospital,” he said.

By 6 pm on Tuesday,  they brought in 19 patients to the District Hospital and the General Hospital. The trips increase after 7pm when a new list of patients who tested positive is announced in Thiruvananthapuram.

“When we bring in a patient for swab collection, we have to wait in the PPE for around two hours, before we drive them back home,” says Bindu, a nurse.

And after every trip, the driver and the nurse have to wash the ambulance wearing the PPE, and then discard the clothing in a yellow plastic bag labelled Covid-19, before taking a bath.

“By then, we get the call for the next trip,” says Bindu.

The ambulance drivers have decided not to go home. A few nurses said they may have to because they have small children at home.

They have been given accommodation at the PWD Guest House in Kanhangad and Rest House in Kasaragod by the Heath Department.

No pay for 2 months

But what is shocking is these selfless health workers have not been paid for the past two months. “This is not the time to complain or think of going on strike,” says Kala, another nurse.

“The situation is the same for all nurses and drivers of the 315 108 ambulances in the state,” she says.

The nurses were promised a salary of around Rs 19,000 and the drivers around 15,000.108 Ambulance is a public-private initiative managed by Hyderabad-based GVK EMRI.

When the staffers were recruited in September, they were put through a three-week training. “For that, GVK charged Rs 15,000 per nurse and Rs 10,000 per driver,” says Sreejith, another nurse.

“The amount was deducted from our salaries in three instalments. In effect, we got only Rs 10,000 each till December, and the drivers got only around Rs 12,000,” he says.

The drivers say since the outbreak of Covid-19, they have a guest house to stay.

“During regular days, the nurses and drivers have to stay put in the ambulance till they get calls,” he says.

Under suspicion

But even more hurting is how their neighbours treat them.

“Yesterday, my wife (Vidya) and I had to go to the bank and we decided to leave my small children at our neighbour’s house,” says Aadarsh, another driver.

“But I sensed they had built a wall of silence to keep us out,” he says. “They think our children are infected because my husband works with corona patients,” says Vidya.

The couple took their two sons, aged 11 and six years, along with them to the bank. “So much for PPE kits. A thankless, payless job,” says Aadarsh.

(All names changed to protect identity)

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