India's essential service providers: I am mentally prepared to serve my country in crisis
Policemen, doctors and more share stories from the frontlines
The front runners in our ‘give them a damn raise’ list are the essential service providers working through the COVID-19 crisis. The grocery store workers, chemists, bus drivers, news reporters, healthcare providers working day and night — and many more.
For some of us, life in lockdown has felt like being in the twilight zone. But for all essential service providers, it’s business as usual.
It’s stressful knowing that thousands out there are depending on you to do your job efficiently in a chaotic time. They’re the unsung heroes who don’t get to stay in the safety of their homes during the quarantine.
But they face the same fears and anxieties that we have — health concerns, families to care for, futures to worry about. The difference is that they haven’t had much time to process any of it.
We took a moment to talk to these real-life superheroes about what life is like in lockdown for someone that is providing these essential services as delegated by the government. These are their stories:
Aditya Agarwal, consultant pulmonologist at The Bombay Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra
“I’m a respiratory physician, the one who deals with patients in critical care. I just bought Rs 15,000 worth of masks, they’re being sold at Rs 500 per piece.
When you’re on the frontline, you expect to be respected and given the equipment you need to fight. But we’ve had people buying masks before the healthcare workers could get it.
I see random people walking around with masks which are not even fixed over their faces properly, just because they can afford it. We should have rationed PPE for healthcare workers.
The day before yesterday, I was asked to see a family where 9 members out of 11 are positive for COVID-19. It’s stressful, heart-breaking and physically draining.
Next week, I begin COVID duty at The Bombay Hospital in Mumbai. It’s going to be a huge emotional challenge because many of us are barely in our late 20s-early 30s — the doctors, nurses, hospital staff — some with young children at home.
My wife and I are both critical care physicians looking after COVID-19 patients, and we’re extremely unsure of how life will pan out over the next few months.
We’re even thinking about getting our will made because we have a two-year-old son. Once the process of making the will starts, we have to think about who will care for our child if we don’t make it, plan our finances…
To those reading this, I want to say, stay at home. It’s sensible that the government imposed a lockdown when they did, and I’ll be glad if it goes on until the end of May. This is one simple method to contain the spread of the virus. You can buy as much PPE, but this is an invisible enemy which will hunt you down and attack you, piggy-backing on seemingly healthy people.
Now is the time to pay attention to your general health, because even slightly high blood pressure or diabetes can really put you at a higher risk. Patients with asthma and bronchitis have to really be careful.
If someone does get the infection, report early so we can take care of you correctly. We will treat you to the best of our capabilities.”
Rajesh Khatri, grocery store manager, Mumbai, Maharashtra
“We didn’t know when the lockdown was announced. We didn’t know what to expect, how to prepare for it.
People just started rushing to the shop, it was chaos. People were coming to me for answers – the boys that worked at the store and people who visited the store – but I didn’t have any.
My family lives in Chandigarh, but I haven’t seen them in months. I’m used to being away from them, but I now worry about their health and them finding rations. But we talk every day and they’re doing alright.
I feel responsible for the boys who work for me. Four of us have been living inside the shop. Thankfully, it has electricity and the building residents next door make sure we get our daily meals and use the bathrooms to wash up. We’re constantly sanitising the store and are now running it from the outside (We’ve set up a table outside the store, people line up, we take orders, go in and get their groceries out).
We have had to deal with a lot of anger and frustration. I have to ration items so people don’t buy in bulk — there has to be enough for everyone. If people don’t abide by the rules, then our shop gets shut down by the police when we’re just trying to provide for others.
We play cards and watch videos on the phone to distract ourselves. One boy that came to the store downloaded YouTube on our phones and showed us how to watch movies and music videos. We’re just trying to pass the time.
People have been kind — offering to help others carry groceries and even buying supplies for people who didn’t have enough money. In a time like this, we just need to be nicer to each other.
If I could give it all for free I would, but I don’t own this shop. I’m just happy I still have a job right now. I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.”
Arnab Nag, senior manager at a public sector bank, Murshidabad district, West Bengal
“The lockdown came with a lot of doubt. We didn’t know the working hours and employee capacity. Next day, the Indian Banks’ Association cleared the air. Mandatory services — transfer transactions, cash withdrawal/ deposit and remittances – aren’t affected.
Procuring masks and gloves was difficult initially. It was risky, especially for cashiers because they directly handle currency notes. Things are better now.
I’m posted at a branch in rural West Bengal. Many customers aren’t comfortable with net banking here. We still have a daily footfall of 250, but local authorities have boosted the security outside the branch. They ensure there are never more than five people inside the bank.
In my seven-year career, I’ve seen that banks don’t fear challenges. Be it demonetisation or this pandemic — employees are positive and take it one day at a time.
I’m worried about my parents who live in Kolkata. I wish I was with them now, but that’s not an option. We talk daily. They do worry but don’t incessantly message to cause panic. My cousins asked me to leave everything and come home. I’m grateful for my support system, but this is my responsibility too.
To divert my mind, I’ve returned to singing. It keeps me from getting saturated. I try to record at least one song every evening.
Last week, we received many phone calls from our customers. Initially, we thought they were calling for banking-related queries.
They were only checking in on us. They were concerned about how we were travelling to banks because public transport wasn’t available. It was so sweet.
The fact that people spare a moment to think about us makes this entire ordeal worthwhile.”
Sharad Kumar, senior reporter, Noida, Delhi
“When we started working remotely, there was a lot of confusion. Everybody was tracking developing stories and roles overlapped. I spend most of my day on phone calls, speaking to sources and coordinating every little bit, but if the authorities announce a press conference, we have to attend.
The press conferences used to be jam-packed initially, but they’ve been moved to an auditorium after we complained about the increased risk factor. Now everybody has their own seat.
We’re expected to wear masks and use hand sanitisers, but people take it quite casually. They touch everything with the same hands, remove their masks, play with their hair…
I’ve become very finicky, I carry sanitiser in my pocket and wash my hands several times a day. When I return home, I have to stay away from my wife before I wash up. She’s had a recent health issue that puts her in the high-risk category for COVID-19.
My family is worried, my mom calls me up and asks me not to go out. But if the boss gives you a task, there’s no choice.
Seeing what’s happening does affect me emotionally. The sombre mood lasts for a day or two, and then I’ll be ok. One of the sights that really haunted me was a woman from a poor area sobbing because her husband was taken away (by the authorities to be quarantined).
I’ve been a crime reporter in the past — we’ve seen bodies — but this is different. It is relentless and people are only interested in one thing — coronavirus-related news.
Because of the lockdown, I think the print industry might become redundant. The newspaper industry is a habit-oriented business, so if people realise that they can continue without one for such a prolonged time, we don’t know how print will recover.”
Sanjay Vasant Chandarkar, BEST employee, Mumbai, Maharashtra
“There are no traffic jams on roads, air and noise pollution is decreasing. Nature is healing, we are seeing more birds — all very good things.
Due to complete lockdown, my duty has been changed to suit current requirements. We are given special duties. This has been my life for 25 years, I am mentally and emotionally prepared to serve my country at this time of crisis.
Every time I see my uniform, the commitment towards my duty is automatically recalled.
BEST is one of the lifelines of Mumbai and being a part of it brings immense pleasure to me.
We have ensured hassle-free travel for essential service providers. My family is very supportive. They’re my mental and emotional support system and all of them are taking necessary precautions when I reach home — even giving me immune-building food and supplements.
As soon as I enter my house, I sanitise myself and then continue with my daily activities, like following the news.
Our work atmosphere has changed for the better. People are more cautious and taking care of themselves and others like never before.
The buses are cleaned regularly, we’re practising social distancing, disinfecting our environment, focusing on hand hygiene and cough and sneeze etiquette.
My advice to others who aren’t required to be outdoors is to stay indoors as much as possible. Make the most of this phase with your loved ones and devote some time to reading, yoga, exercises and other indoor activities.”
Santosh*, policeman, Mumbai, Maharashtra
My task has been to monitor checkpoints and ensure people are adhering to social distancing.
We’ve all become very careful when it comes to hygiene. Men who previously weren’t that concerned are now practising good hygiene and cleanliness — which is a great development.
My family has asked me to come back home so we can be together, but this is my duty to the city. As long as I am healthy, then any situation has to be managed in this job.
People are stressed and confused, there is aggression everywhere, regardless of what job they do. But we need to be careful about who we are listening to — fake news is rampant so learn how to identify sources before you spread information. See what the doctors have to say and respect the people around you.
We have to be vigilant during the day to make sure people are abiding by rules. It can get boring, but we try and entertain each other with songs, the radio and games on the phone.
I get tense sometimes, but I remind myself that this is my job. This is what the police is supposed to do. When we get the information, we are supposed to share the right practices with others and assure them.
We’ve tied up with some rickshaw wallahs and they’ve been driving around the neighbourhood, playing recorded awareness speeches on loudspeakers.
I wish people would understand that we are all human beings – whether you are at home and working or like us, out on the roads. We’re all worried, but you’re not alone. We’re in this together and that’s the only way we can get through it.
People just need to listen to the government and stay at home. It is the simplest thing, inconvenient, yes, but you are safer there and we can stay safe outside. We need to adjust and help each other.”
*Name changed to protect identity upon contributor’s request.