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India’s ‘ASHA’ Army Of 6 Lakh COVID-19 Hunting Women Is Going On A Strike. They Are Demanding A Better Pay. We Owe It To These Women

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Right now, the nation’s army of doctors, nurses, ward boys, and health support staff is as crucial to its survival as its army, navy and airforce. While the latter fight to keep national enemies at bay, the health and sanitation workers of India have been fighting to keep the Coronavirus pandemic under control. Amongst them is a million-strong army of Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHAs, who have been working in an overdrive since the pandemic struck. And out of these million, 6,00,000 female ASHA workers are going on a two-day strike from August 7 to draw attention to their abysmal plight. As the country with the third-largest number of infections in the world, this strike is a blow that could severely weaken our COVID-19 response.

As Bloomberg reports, the ASHA workers aren’t just a force that was summoned to combat the virus. These healthcare workers have been on the forefront of the country’s polio vaccination and tuberculosis campaigns as well as implementation of maternal health programmes too. Even now, while a majority of them have been deployed for COVID-19 contact-tracing, they continue to play their part in other essential healthcare services that fall under their ambit. Evidently, if the ASHAs put down their weapons, we might as well brace ourselves for a breakdown of our already crumbling public healthcare system.

Contact tracing is what has helped bring down the number of cases in slum areas like Mumbai’s Dharavi. If that suffers, we might see an explosion of more cases.

Who are the ASHAs?

The ASHAs are a team of young female healthcare workers who go from door to door to implement various public health schemes such as child vaccinations, maternal healthcare, and so on. They are considered honorary, voluntary workers who normally pull a 2-3 hour shift, and therefore do not fall as workers under the Minimum Wages Act that ensures they get their dues.

The COVID-19 outbreak has redirected their duties, which now involve going to low-income households and remote areas to look for anyone exhibiting signs of cough, cold, fever and other symptoms that might indicate a probable COVID case. However, as we’ve seen in the numerous videos that flashed on news channels, this job gets more hate than gratitude. These ASHAs are driven out by the locals and now allowed to do their jobs properly because people don’t want to be taken away to quarantine facilities.

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Why are the ASHA workers on strike?

As one of the first defences of the country against COVID-19, the ASHA workers’ lives are at a much higher risk. The virus outbreak has drastically changed their scope of work, which means most of them are working 12-hour+ shifts, which has taken a toll on their physical and mental health. Many are unable to go home to their families and have been living in government facilities because they do not want to endanger their families.

Now imagine having to go from door to door for contract tracing but not being provided appropriate protective gear for it! Around 20 ASHAs have already succumbed to the virus, and more are risking their lives everyday without proper PPE kits. One of the ASHAs told Bloomberg that even after working a shift from 7 am to 5 pm without being provided masks or sanitisers, they were only paid Rs. 2000. This measly amount was also delayed often.

The Central government has promised expedited insurance claim procedures for healthcare workers who die in the line of duty. However, it is being reported that it has been difficult for deceased ASHA workers’ families to get their claims passed as well.

What do the ASHAs want?

The strike has already kicked off in some places like Karnataka and even in Bihar, last month.

Most ASHAs cannot even fathom leaving their jobs right now because the economy is so badly hit and there’s also the country’s need for them to do their job. All they want in return is for their employer to acknowledge their efforts in a timely and commensurate manner. This means a legal status under the Minimum Wages Act, a pay hike (Rs 21,000) and timely pay. The two-day strike, organised by the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) isn’t just limited to the ASHA workers but includes other scheme workers who also play an equally important part in India’s public healthcare system.

“The unions and federations of scheme workers (anganwadi, ASHA, Mid-Day Meal, NHM, Samagra Sikksha, and others) affiliated to the central trade unions (INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF, UTUC) will go on two days strike on August 7-8, 2020,” says the joint statement issued by the Union.

Amongst other things, there is also a demand for Rs 50 lakh insurance cover for all frontline workers who succumb on duty, and pension of Rs 10,000 per month/job provisions for the dependents of these workers. Coverage of COVID-19 treatment for these workers and their families is also being demanded.

These demands seem basic, and something that these frontline workers absolutely deserve for the risky job that they are doing every single day for the past five months. To deny them and their families this protection and these basic rights would be inhuman.

If this strike extends any longer than 2 days, we could see a spike in cases that has otherwise been in check because scheme workers like the ASHAs are doing their jobs.

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