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Indian Social Health Activists Struggle for Better Pay, Protection Amid Pandemic

© Sputnik / Deexa KhanduriASHA workers call for fixed working hours and wages as they keep fighting COVID across India.
ASHA workers call for fixed working hours and wages as they keep fighting COVID across India. - Sputnik International, 1920, 30.07.2021
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Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) are the key frontline healthcare workers assisting the government in connecting with rural dwellers. They play a vital role in combating the country's health crises, acting as a bridge between the government and a most vulnerable section of society.
Although they play a key role in India's healthcare system, thousands of social health activists in the country have been compelled to protest to seek better and fixed wages, proper equipment during COVID-19 duty, insurance against coronavirus, and security.
Known as Accredited Social Healthcare Activists (ASHAs), these workers are protesting mainly in the states of Punjab, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat, Kerala, and the union territory of Delhi.
ASHAs - Challenges and Struggles
Sapna has been working at a COVID-19 vaccination centre in South Delhi's Gautam Nagar primary healthcare dispensary since April. However, the 41-year-old is not yet fully vaccinated, as she is not scheduled to receive her second dose until October at the earliest, despite the fact that she had her first dose in the middle of July.
Speaking to Sputnik on why she hasn't been fully vaccinated, Sapna said: "In March, we protested, urging the government to provide us with proper vaccination. But nobody bothered to listen to us. We have vaccinated thousands of people. But nobody has cared for us."
© Sputnik / Deexa Khanduri Sapna, an ASHA worker, protesting outside South Delhi's Gautam Nagar primary health care dispensary
Sapna, an ASHA worker, protesting outside South Delhi's Gautam Nagar primary health care dispensary - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.09.2021
Sapna, an ASHA worker, protesting outside South Delhi's Gautam Nagar primary health care dispensary
The Indian government started vaccinating its frontline workers against COVID-19 in January this year, but ASHAs, who are considered volunteers, were not on that list.
"Most of us are feeling dejected especially after the death of one of their colleagues, Noormah Naaz."
In April, 38-year-old Naaz died because of complications from COVID-19, according to her family.
"She died from a lack of oxygen, and she couldn't find a bed in any hospital. Her husband rushed her from one hospital to another for several hours but every hospital refused to admit her. In Delhi, we have lost at least 50 ASHAs. Had the government provided us with better facilities, these deaths could have been averted," Sapna said although it has not been possible to verify the statement officially.
In 2005, the government launched the National Rural Health Mission, recruiting ASHAs to connect vulnerable and rural communities to the healthcare sector.
© Sputnik / Deexa KhanduriAn ASHA worker holds a banner, "ASHAs don't have fixed working hours. Stop this slavery!"
An ASHA worker holds a banner, ASHAs don't have fixed working hours. Stop this slavery! - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.09.2021
An ASHA worker holds a banner, "ASHAs don't have fixed working hours. Stop this slavery!"
There are more than a million ASHAs in the country. Ideally, a health activist is supposed to reach 1,500 people in their area. They are paid between INR 1,000 and 3,000 (roughly $13.5 to $40) every month. But this is not fixed, as their work is supposed to be voluntary and part-time.
Shweta Raj, president of Dilli ASHA Kamgar Union (a group of healthcare activists) said that the pandemic has resulted in a far greater workload. “They have to conduct door-to-door surveys and contact tracing, distribute essential medicines and rations, and visit houses where there are people suffering from COVID-19. But they haven't received any masks, sanitisers or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits," she added.
© Sputnik / Deexa Khanduri ASHA workers demand fixed wages and social security guarantees amid pandemic as they protest outside South Delhi's Gautam Nagar primary health care dispensary
ASHA workers demand fixed wages and social security guarantees amid pandemic as they protest outside South Delhi's Gautam Nagar primary health care dispensary - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.09.2021
ASHA workers demand fixed wages and social security guarantees amid pandemic as they protest outside South Delhi's Gautam Nagar primary health care dispensary
In June, more than 72,000 ASHAs in Maharashtra state in west India, announced an indefinite strike against inadequate pay and unsatisfactory safety measures being provided to them while they carry out their COVID-19 surveys.
Within a week, they called off the strike after they were promised a pay rise. But health activists have confirmed that, so far, that promise has yet to be met.
A similar situation exists in West Bengal state in east India. On Wednesday, ASHAs there held a demonstration to demand a rise in wages and to be vaccinated. The female workers said they were underpaid but overworked. Moreover, some of them have been subject to violence and abuse.
In Uttar Pradesh state in north India, an ASHA in Gorakhpur District was abused and assaulted while collecting details of residents for the COVID-19 vaccination.
Many ASHAs told Sputnik that they are accustomed to receiving verbal abuse.
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