“Don’t you worry I will have to do a survey of Kovid-19 in Noorani Nagar, Green Park. It’s a question of people’s lives. By the grace of Allah everything will be fine, I will not die”.
Sameer Khan breaks down as he recalls his wife Farah Qazi’s words of assurance about her own safety while working on a government survey of Covid affected people in Indore, the business capital of Madhya Pradesh.
Farah, an accredited social health worker (ASHA) deployed on Covid duty by the state health authorities, herself tested positive in April this year as the second wave of the pandemic swept through many parts of India. She was on a ventilator at the city’s MTS Hospital for 12 days before passing away. She is survived by her husband and two daughters.
According to Sameer his wife would survey the area by roaming around from morning to evening, delivering medicines to the infected, motivating the patients with cold and cough or fever to give samples and return home in the evening exhausted. She would insist on first sending off her report to the health officials even if she was hungry and needed to eat her dinner.
And all this for just Rupees 2000 a month says Sameer pulling out Farah Qazi’s bank passbook to show around. An additional Rupees 3000 was earned by ensuring institutional deliveries for pregnant women or taking part in vaccination campaigns.
‘My wife left no stone unturned to serve the society and the health department. Now that she is dead the government says it does not consider her a regular employee. It really hurts ‘says Sameer says.
Sameer himself does not have a job, he earns Rs 6000 to 8000 a month doing odd jobs in hospitals. Even that job is not in hand yet. He is running the family by taking loans.
Farah Qazi’s story is a familiar one for many frontline workers who were employed by the MP health department and other state agencies tackling the pandemic. In all, over four lakh government employees, including doctors, health workers, ASHA and Anganwadi workers, revenue department patwaris, tehsildars, teachers, police were involved. Hundreds of such employees working on the ground died during the second wave of Covid, that started in early April this year.
These are the employees who did the sampling, contract tracing and treatment of the infected. There are also some employees who themselves did not get Covid but because of them, their family members got infected at home and lost their lives.
The worst off are these employees who were rendering services as outsource and contract workers. The MP government is not providing any assistance to many families of such deceased employees.
Another example of how contract workers have been totally neglected is that of Chandrabhan Ahake from Betul who died on 27 April 2021 due to Covid. Denied government compensation now his wife and three daughters are struggling to survive.
Chandrabhan was the driver of the Betul district hospital van for over 15 years, on a salary of Rupees 8000 per month. During the pandemic he drove over 200 kilometers every day to transport samples of suspected Covid patients from across his district to the diagnostic lab of Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal.
Hospital officials say that Chandrabhan was not directly employed by the government and drove a vehicle that was contracted by them. Though he used to work more than many government employees he was not on their regular rolls and so was not entitled for any compensation.
His brother Deepak Ahake told Covid Response Watch, “Chandrabhan believed that it was his duty to go out to help people when they were in trouble due to the pandemic. He used to say ‘if in a crisis everyone leaves work and sits at home, then how will you win against Covid? Don’t worry, everything will be fine’”
Deepak himself is only a temporary worker in a food grain procurement yard in Betul. With his meagre income he is struggling to support both his own and his brother’s families. According to him one and a half lakh rupees were borrowed and spent on his brother’s treatment and the loan also remains unpaid.
“The future looks very dark” he says.
The government had said during the start of the first wave of Covid last year that, it would give Rupees 5 million to employees who lost their lives to the pandemic as part of the Corona Warrior Scheme. The compensation amount was later changed to half a million rupees and included as part of another scheme, but even the reduced benefit amount is not being given.
Instead, the next-of-kin of a few employees have been given jobs on compassionate grounds. Numerous obstacles have been placed to prevent bereaved families from accessing any compensation. Many of the families of those who had regular government jobs and died of Covid are also facing bureaucratic indifference.
For example, when Preeti Khare, a patwari (accounts officer) in the Madhya Pradesh Department of Revenue in Bhopal died due to Covid-19 her family was denied compensation on the pretext that her death occurred after the scheme period had ended. When Mukesh Khare applied for the benefits promised under the Corona Yoddha scheme he was told that the compensation scheme was effective only from 1 April 2020 to 31 October 2020. Since his wife died on 1 December 2020 her family was not eligible for the assistance amount.
“I told Preeti, don’t give your life. I will earn for you and both our daughters. Stay at home. If something happens to you, without their mother, the children will suffer’ says Mukesh Khare her husband.
According to him Preeti’s retort was that life and death are in the hands of the one above and there was nothing to worry about. She believed the government would look after her family if anything bad happened.
“They have not even included her name in the list of Corona warriors” laments Mukesh.
Many such families in Madhya Pradesh are living on the edge, financially broken, feeling neglected and helpless. Some families are surviving by taking loans. They are immersed in the grief of losing their family’s bread earners and worrying about their future.
The way families of deceased government employees have been abandoned has weakened the confidence of the common people in the government. The lack of trust and anger against the state authorities is bound to create problems whenever the anticipated third wave of Covid-19 hits Madhya Pradesh.
Pooja Yadav is a journalist based in Bhopal