The alarm goes off at 4.30 a.m, waking up 65-year-old-Devayani. Rising from the jute sleeping mat, she reaches for the clock and stops it, and looks through a grilled window into a small room in her single-bedroom house at Ice House in Triplicane.
On a cot that occupies much of the room, her son is fast asleep. She tip-toes away to the kitchen area to make sure her son’s sleep is not disturbed, and that is how her daily routine begins. Rather, the new routine, which took effect since the lockdown began.
It includes making food for her son and herself, and the close-to-dawn effort has their breakfast and lunch covered. It also has to do with having the lunch box packed; making a flask full of filter coffee for her son and finally sweeping the entire house.
She keeps the lunch box on the table near her son’s room and, then, retires to her jute sleeping mat. The new routine is followed through the week, including Sunday — for, her son has work to do all seven days of the week.
This punishing homemaking work schedule has been necessitated by her son’s role. P. Bhaskar, Devayani’s son, is engaged as a Basic Health Worker (BHW) at Public Health Department in Zone – 5 (Royapuram), one of the high containment zones within Greater Chennai Corporation limits.
“I hesitate to talk to her from a close range, because of the nature of my work. At home, my room is in the “containment zone” from which I hardly step outside after work,” says 45-year-old Bhaskar, a father of two who has been working with the Public Health Department of the civic body since 1996.
Bhaskar sent his wife and two children to his in-laws’ house in Medavakkam, near Tambaram, when the lockdown came into effect four months ago in March. It was a measure undertaken to ensure their safety. In fact, he wanted his mother to join them, but she wouldn’t agree to that arrangement. She stayed back so that she could take care of him.
Since then, Bhaskar has been visiting his in-laws’ house once in a fortnight to spend some time with his family before returning to work the same day.
“I stay with my son because someone should be there with him during such a difficult time in our life. He is my only child. How can I leave him alone and stay elsewhere?” says Devayani.
Being a field-level health worker, Bhaskar, who heads a team of 12 health staff, covers the congested lanes in George Town including NSC Bose Road (earlier known as China Bazaar Road), Kasi Chetty Street, Armenian Street, Mint Street, Errabalu Street, Rattan Bazaar Road, Audiappa Naicken Street and Thatha Muthiappan Street under Ward 59 in Zone – 5 (Royapuram) of Greater Chennai Corporatuon. This region is densely populated and is marked by a huge presence of wholesale traders.
In addition, he is also in-charge of Ward 50 which covers areas lying between Royapuram bridge and Kasimedu fishing market.
The wholesale traders’ hub in George Town has been operating for most part of the lockdown with altered work timings, and shutting down entirely only during intense lockdown days, as their role in ensuring regular supply of essential items is indispensable.
Each building in the region, particularly those buildings in the trading area, has at least ten shops including four godowns. On an average, the neighbourhood of George Town has around one lakh such shops including godowns. Most of the workers in these wholesale shops are domiciled in the added area of the civic body such as Ambattur, Padi, Porur, Poonamallee, Puzhal and Athipet and would travel to these shops by cycles.
This population density of the region as well the movement of people have contributed to a spike in COVID-19 cases, point out Corporation officials.
At present, on an average, at least two medical camps are being held every day in George Town, and they particularly cover the traders in the neighbourhood. Door-to-door check-ups are also being done with at least 50 samples being taken every day. Wholesale traders were given alternative days to open their shops to ensure the neighbourhood is decongested.
The exercise of intense testing in the neighbourhood will continue for the next few weeks, say Corporation officials.
Basic Health Worker – Then and Now
The post of Basic Health Worker (BHW) was formed more than three decades under the National Malaria Eradication Programme (NMEP) by what was then called the Corporation of Madras. These non-technical staff were part of the malaria wing of the Public Health Department before all separate such wings, including those meant for dengue and chikungunya control, were merged.
The work of these employees involves supervising field-level health workers who go from door to door to check on residents to look for symptoms of malaria, dengue and a few other diseases. They are also in-charge of taking blood samples for malaria and dengue. During the COVID-19, they are mainly focused on screening and testing residents in respective neighbourhoods.
They also take care of the work that involves shifting patients from neighbourhoods to the nearest government hospitals.
In recent times, they were also deployed for assisting sanitary inspectors in respective wards in the disposal of bodies. BHWs continue to do their routine work of organising medical camps, verification of residents before issuing birth and death certificates and assisting in food quality inspections, especially at Amma Canteens.