Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Army of women on India’s virus front line




Army of women on India’s virus front line

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Accredited social health activists (Ashas) often face discrimination while testing citizens for coronavirus. AFP

Army of women on India’s virus front line

Unprotected and poorly paid, an all-women army of health workers confront suspicion, anger and the threat of infection as they go door to door searching for coronavirus sufferers in India’s poor communities.

About a million accredited social health activists, or Ashas, are deployed in cities and villages to administer basic medical care such as vaccinations and delivering babies.

But as the number of confirmed infections in India soars past 500,000, the women find themselves on the front line of the battle against the contagion, identifying potential cases and educating locals in the hope of slowing its spread.

Asha workers told AFP they had nothing except their headscarves to protect them from the virus and were often abused by people angry about the government’s handling of the outbreak, which is one of the worst in the world.

“I have been an Asha for 14 years now and never have I been as scared to knock on a door with my bare hands. We don’t have gloves, not even masks,” said Alka, who asked AFP not to use her surname.

Alka and her colleagues visit households and ask the occupants to fill out a questionnaire on any virus symptoms they might have and their recent travel histories.

Many of the residents are among the millions of migrant workers left jobless and destitute by the months-long virus lockdown imposed by the government in March.

If someone looks like a potential case, the Ashas report them to authorities.

Some Ashas have been physically attacked by villagers who fear they are carrying the virus or are government spies.

During a recent doorknock in a village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Alka and her two colleagues were spotted by eight men in a store who came out and surrounded them.

The men shouted at the women about the shortage of basic food and protection against the virus.

Standing her ground, Alka said she told the men: “Even we don’t get gear and grains. Where will we get it for you?”

Such harassment is bearable, she told AFP. “Recently some locals tore the clothes on one woman while she was working.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
India lacks contact tracing, which makes Ashas essential in the fight to prevent the spread of Covid-19. AFP

Given the lack of contact tracing in India, the Ashas were “critical elements” in India’s fight against Covid-19, said Anant Bhan, a leading public health expert.

The women know their communities well, Bhan said. But their work is difficult and poorly paid despite a 1,000 rupee ($13) coronavirus bonus.

‘We are the heroes’

Alka supports her husband – who does not approve of her work and often calls her names – and three children with a monthly salary of 6,000 rupees.

But she has to pay for her own transport to and from the communities she is helping.

Sometimes she has to walk home because she has run out of money or there are virus restrictions affecting public transport.

Alka and her team say they have formed a “sisterhood” that keeps them going.

“Our supervisors give us orders over the phone from the comfort of their offices or homes. We sacrifice our family lives and take daily risks to educate and help people,” said Alka.

“We are the heroes.”

During a recent visit to the village of Bahadarpur, Alka used a homemade flour-based glue to stick up a poster outside a home explaining the need to wash hands and take other precautions against the virus.

“The glue on the poster is not strong enough,” she said.

“But if I have to use even a rupee from my salary for glue, it’s a huge dent in my budget.”

The women’s pleas for people to wear face masks and self-isolate if they have symptoms are often not welcomed, especially in impoverished communities where many are day labourers.

“I’ll stay home if you guarantee me that my kids won’t die of hunger,” a man told the Ashas during a visit accompanied by AFP.

Alka said it was not easy to get people to heed their advice.

“People are struggling to feed their families,” she said.

“What can we do?”

MOST VIEWED

  • PM: West unfair to Cambodia

    Prime Minister Hun Sen released a message celebrating the International Day of Peace on Monday, saying that some major powers and western countries had been systemically cooperating to put political pressure on Cambodia as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Hun Sen said pressuring

  • ‘Bad news is an investor’s best friend’ – unlocking investment potential in Cambodia

    It is time to shop. Economic woes provide good pickings for investors if they know where to look The poem If, written by English Nobel laureate poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling for his son circa 1895, is widely perceived as fatherly advice for John who would

  • PM requests Russia’s Covid vaccine

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has requested that Russia provide Cambodia with its Covid-19 vaccine after the former announced it planned on mass vaccinating its population next month. The request came on Thursday through the prime minister’s Facebook page as he met with Anatoly Borovik,

  • First ‘mobile kitchen’ in Cambodia enters service

    A catering company recently rolled out Cambodia’s first “mobile kitchen” – a $50,000 container capable of serving up to 200 people at a time. The kitchen is the brainchild of Seng Hok Heng Catering Services. At 4.4m-high, 6.8m-long and 2.4m-wide (expandable to 6.8m), the kitchen is equipped

  • Kingdom, China rebut basis for US sanctions

    The Council for the Development of Cambodia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and Tianjin Union Investment Development Group Co Ltd (Tianjin) have responded to US sanctions on Union Development Group Co Ltd (UDG), a Chinese-owned company currently developing the sprawling $3.8 billion Dara

  • Influenza breaks out in eight provinces

    Nearly 600 people have been infected with influenza in eight provinces in the past month, Ministry of Health spokesperson Or Vandine said. The ministry is advising extreme caution. A report released by Vandine on Saturday said the Ministry of Health observed transmissions of influenza between August 15