“The course of true love never did run smooth”
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Chennai: What happens when both parents are out at work during the national lockdown? When both their services are non-negotiable and crucial to the nation?
Fifty-six-year-old Jorgina Ramesh Kumar, the nurse in-charge for the COVID-19 team at King George’s Medical University, at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, has managed several outbreaks in her 23 years of service. In 2009, when she contracted swine flu, it was her husband Ramesh Kumar, 55, an assistant nursing superintendent at Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences who nursed her to health.
Ramesh is in charge of the 30-bed nephrology unit where he works in coordination with doctors, nurses, hospital attendants and the sanitation department. “Right now, all the beds are occupied as we have many critical patients including those of organ transplantation. We have to constantly guard them against COVID-19 as their immunity is compromised,” he said.
Jorgina guides a team of 50 nurses and manages four COVID-19 wards. “We started getting infected patients from March 2. I ensure that nurses who come from other wards to aid me get all the moral support they need as anxiety is the last thing we need here,” said Jorgina whose team has been instrumental in the recovery of four patients.
“We have brought up our kids by sharing responsibilities equally and we discuss everything about our work. As nursing professionals, our jobs and relationship are intertwined but we ensure that they are dealt with independently. It has helped us sail through everything, together,” says Ramesh, father of two college-going daughters studying nursing and radiology.
Jorgina’s biggest support is her husband. “We leave home by 8 am and return by 6 pm. We both are punctual and ensure that we stay longer at work if required. If I am on night duty my husband ensures that I don’t have to worry about my meals. By god’s grace, we have a selfless relationship, which has given me the strength to fight this pandemic and for that matter, anything else in the world,” she said.
Law and order, and fire
Assistant sub-inspector at the Bhubaneswar Police Commissionerate in Odisha, Pankajini Naik (45) works at the coronavirus control room. Her job involves stopping every vehicle that passes through the checkpost between 8 am and 10 pm. After due enquiry, she uses her discretion to granting an entry pass to the vehicle. Her husband, 48-year-old Bhavani Sankar Naik, a leading fireman (LFM) at the Fire Station, Bhubaneswar Secretariat, is always at the back of her mind.
Bhavani has survived several fatal incidents in his 27 years of service.
“He lost his colleague four years ago when their vehicle fell into a bridge enroute a fire rescue operation in Baripada, of Mayurbhanj district. In Khordha district, Bhavani and his rescue team were badly beaten up by locals at a fire mishap spot when they turned up late after having been stuck in a traffic jam,” recounts Pankajini.
Now, Bhavani fights the invisible virus along with fire. He disinfects coronavirus hotspots which include hospitals, quarantined houses, bus stands, parks, public shelters and rescues humans as well as animals.
The fire rescue team also delivers essential items to anyone in an emergency.
“I wake up at 4 am daily irrespective of when I go to sleep. Every day is a mission and every call is an emergency. The fire station is my home although we have managed a rented accommodation in view of a financially stressful situation,” said Bhavani, who is a father of two. Their children are 18 and 13 years old.
With their hectic work schedule, the couple barely manages to share meals. “On most days he stays back at work and, on quite a few, I am on night duty. We are in such professions that we have experienced all kinds of days in our 20 years of marriage,” said Pankajini.
Dr S. Kruthika (31), a resident medical oncologist at the Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Specialty Hospital in Omandurar Government Estate delivered a baby on March 19, days before the national lockdown. Her husband, 32-year-old Dr Midhun Kumar, a COVID-19 team doctor and a cardiologist at Dr Mehta’s hospital in Chennai was ecstatic at the news. The couple was anxious as they had to keep their newborn and their four-and-a-half-year-old older son safe.
Kruthika’s elderly father, Dr Shanmuga Sundaram, a general physician had come to meet his newly born grandchild along with his wife. On March 24, the national lockdown was announced, and her father could not go back to treating his patients in Tiruttani, Tiruvallur district.
Dr Midhun also hails from a family of physicians – both his parents are doctors – and his brother Dr Dheepan Nayagam is currently treating COVID-19 patients at the Government Sivagangai Medical College and Hospital. The challenge for Dr Midhun doesn’t end at the hospital.
Once home, he has to stop his eager son from hugging him before he completes his ritual of diligent sanitisation.
“We tried renting out a separate accommodation for Midhun but due to the lack of water supply, the plan couldn’t materialise. Our family friends in the medical fraternity are taking turns when it comes to childcare, while their partner is in quarantine. Some of them have been separated from their kids as they do COVID-19 duty for a week and remain quarantined in the hospital the next week. When they do manage to come home, they fear infecting their family members,” said a visibly worried Dr Kruthika.
Dr Midhun often has to rush due to midnight calls. “Last week, one patient turned positive for COVID-19 and we referred him to the Omandurar Medical College Hospital. The quality of personal protective equipment (PPE) has to improve as we are always in close contact with the patients,” he said and added that he had to take the ECG, echocardiogram and throat swabs of the patients.
“The patients are usually in the high-risk category and, of course, the novelty of the coronavirus is that you can never distinguish prima-facie between an infected and non-infected person. Back home, even if I have a mild cough, my wife panics in the other room,” said Dr Midhun.
Police and traffic
Forty-one-year-old Sarmistha Barua, the additional DCP (Police), central district police commissionerate at Guwahati, Assam, is often busy patrolling the roads. Her job is to ensure effective implementation of the lockdown. Sometimes she bumps into her husband Pranjit Borah (41), the additional DCP (Traffic).
The 2004 batch couple of the Dergaon Assam Police Training Centre is on round-the-clock duty. “We don’t reach home before midnight. Our phone conversations sustain us,” says Sarmistha.
The couple’s sons aged seven and three are taken care of by Sarmistha’s parents. “The elder one has a fairly good understanding of the pandemic but handling the younger child is a herculean task. We manage through video calls. If we are lucky, one of us gets to have breakfast with the kids.”
“In 12 years of marriage, we have stayed together in the same address only for 1.5 years due to postings at different places. Now we live apart under the same roof due to COVID-19,” said Sarmistha. She added that her parents, in-laws and support staff have helped her sail through the years.
The biggest challenge for both of them is to tackle those flouting the lockdown. “People don’t understand that by breaking rules, they put themselves in danger,” said Sarmistha who believes that her foremost duty lies in educating people.
Mukhter Ah Wani and Shamema Akther, a couple from Pampore block of the Pulwama district in Jammu and Kashmir were perplexed about how people were managing to procure food supplies. The two, who are vegetable vendors, used to earn Rs 5,000 a month but since the lockdown, they are happy to even see any of their existing customers pass them by.
The couple share their roof with Mukhter’s brother and his spouse. “My brother works as a labourer, so we are solely dependent on selling vegetables. For us, the threat from coronavirus is still far-fetched, but dying from poverty is much closer. We wake up at 5 am everyday to buy vegetables from a wholesale vehicle that comes from Srinagar. While at work, we make it a point to wear masks and wash our hands frequently. People are terrified of this virus, indeed,” said Mukhter.
Mukhter had previously tried his hand at the textile business but returned to being a vegetable vendor in a shack right next to his house. With hardly any takers, the couple has resorted to selling only onions and potatoes.
Thirty-nine-year-old K. Gayathri is the pharmacist-in-charge at the KIMS Saveera Super Specialty Hospital, Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh. Her husband G. Surendra (47), also a pharmacist, recently shifted to a separate accommodation near his workplace – the Government Area Hospital, Kadiri, 95 kilometres away from her place – due to the increased workload, long commute and the constant fear of infecting his family. They have been in the profession for over 20 years.
“We maintain social distancing and ensure people just drop off their prescriptions and leave with their needs fulfilled at the earliest. We provide the basic information and comfort that everyone seeks. My work lingers from 10 am to 8 pm and, at times, stretches beyond. With our incessant work and occasional night duties, leaves are out of sight,” said Gayathri who manages a team of 12 pharmacists and is also a mother of two kids aged 15 and nine.
COVID-19 demands that apart from dispensing medicines, overseeing indents and managing inventories, Surendra has to pack medication for at least 40-80 persons every day. “I get a daily list of drugs to be packaged to be given to outreach workers who then distribute it to patients in their homes and primary health centres – each box includes antiretroviral drugs, iron tablets, paracetamol, among others.”
Every morning at 6 am, 40-year-old Aandal trudges her cart through the Sholavandan town panchayat, Madurai, Tamil Nadu and collects trash from 150 houses along with her husband Maarisamy (45), who also cleans ditches at the street ends. They have been married for 18 years and have been engaged in sanitation work for over 15 years.
They have two daughters aged 17 and 15. Their work is never-ending. “We do two shifts per day – 6 am to 10 am and 11 am to 2 pm. The single shift on Sunday is our only respite as we cannot afford a single day leave even if we are sick as our salary gets deducted,” says Aandal.
“Our work is crucial now and cleanliness is the key to fighting this disease. We earn our livelihood by keeping the streets of Madurai clean so people won’t panic,” said Aandal.
Haseena Syed (34) is a single parent and the customer associate at State Bank of India, Neelankarai branch in Chennai and goes to work every day leaving her eight-year-old daughter with her 60-year-old parents.
“The major work in the bank right now is cash withdrawal and deposit. But it is common knowledge now that currency notes can be a source of infection. While earlier, we used to come on alternate days, since April 1 we have been working in our usual work slot, six days a week from 10 am to 4 pm except our offs on second and fourth Saturdays,” says Haseena.
“Why do we need to use the cash deposit machines when the bank employees are there?”, “Why do we need a mask when we are maintaining distance?” and “Why should we use the hand-sanitiser kept in the bank when we just came from home?” are some of the most frequently asked questions by her customers.
Every day, Haseena has to convince her daughter Sana who quips, “Amma, all parents are home. Why don’t you just quit your job or take leave?” or reason with her brother in Dubai – “Please quit this job as your health is the main concern for us and finances can be managed.”
“I have worked hard to get a job in a nationalised bank and I want to sustain my independence,” said Haseena who requests people to use digital banking as much as they can and be considerate towards bankers.
Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.