Jyoti Bhambure is usually the one who distributes the drug – this week she was the recipient, among the first among millions of Indian health workers to win a COVID-19 vaccine.
Dressed in a bright green sari with a gold trim, Bhambure visited the small rural hospital in West India at the allotted time and said the blow lifted a weight off her shoulders.
“I no longer fear the coronavirus,” said Bhambure, after receiving his initial dose on Tuesday, one of the first frontline workers to gain protection in the pandemic.
“We take care of the children and interact with the mothers,” she says. “So I’m happy to have been vaccinated. I am no longer afraid in my mind.
India has suffered 152,000 deaths from the virus and has prioritized around 30 million frontline workers in the first phase of a vaccination campaign that began on January 16.
More than 800,000 people have been vaccinated to date, according to government data.
For health workers like Bhambure, a place on the priority list seemed like a long-awaited validation for all women who work as certified social health activists – or ASHA for short.
“I was the first to get vaccinated in my village. It felt good. They recognized the work we have done, ”she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the village of Khed, in the western state of Maharashtra.
“The recognition came late, but it finally came.”
Over the past long year, ASHA workers – one million women all in pink saris uniforms – have worked frantically on the rural frontlines to curb an increasingly severe pandemic as millions of migrants returned home. them after the disappearance of urban jobs during the lockdown.
Multitasking doesn’t begin to describe their work.
From offering COVID-19 counseling to registering all arrivals to the village, the women have been simultaneously tasked with quarantining new arrivals while carrying out their traditional duties of caring for new ones. -borns and mothers.
ASHA workers saw their working hours and duties stretched further and further and even fought to be recognized as government employees eligible for benefits, rather than just volunteers.
Because if ASHA workers didn’t step in, it wasn’t clear who else could, as the 15-year-old force is the only healthcare provider in many villages where healthcare facilities are far away. or none, with 1,000 to 1,500 people in each worker. care.
Eighteen ASHA workers have died on COVID duty, the government told parliament last year.
Women take all precautions – masks, disinfectant, some even wear protective gear – but the fear of infection remains.
“I have taken care of 34 coronavirus patients in my village and I am still at work. I wear a mask, but it was important to get the vaccine, ”said Sharda Sachin Patarne, an ASHA worker in the village of Khed in the Pune district, who also received an injection on Tuesday.
ASHA was born in 2005 to improve the health of large swathes of rural India cut off from doctors, clinics and hospitals.
Whether it is leading village maternity care or organizing region-wide vaccination campaigns, ASHA workers are a mainstay, but say they are treated like volunteers, without even being entitled to minimum wage.
Paid around 4000 Indian rupees ($ 54.83) per month – half of the average minimum monthly wage – women also receive payments of Rs 50 to 500 related to specific tasks they perform.
Last year they went on strike for better pay, protective gear and job recognition. They were offered a pay rise for their COVID-19 duties, but many complained about irregular payments.
So when the government rolled out its plans to protect the front line of health care – doctors, nurses, hospital cooks and cleaners – extending that coverage to ASHA workers only made sense.
This sent a “good signal,” said Sejaj Dand, founder of the women’s rights nonprofit, Anandi, saying the frontline would not be secure after all if ASHA was left behind. side.
The next stop, she said, is to give the million women a voice in government and a level playing field to reflect their frontline roles.
“This should lead to creating a framework for them in government services and ensuring that all of their social security rights are covered,” Dand said.
“It is normal that their employment is regularized now.”