My name is Manika Mandal, and I’m a ward worker at the COVID-19 unit of Mahendra Mohan Choudhury Hospital (MMCH) in Guwahati, Assam. I have been working at this government-run hospital for 10 years now and I draw a monthly salary of INR 7,000.
MMCH is one of the three hospitals in Guwahati—the largest city in the state—that is equipped to deal with coronavirus-infected patients. It also houses the Northeast’s first COVID-19 unit dedicated to children. As a ward worker, my primary responsibility is to keep the wards assigned to me clean, and this includes dusting at regular intervals, changing patients’ clothes, their bed sheets, and cleaning up after them. I also have to make sure that patients are properly fed.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, my shift would start at 8 AM and end at 2 PM but now I have to work till 4 PM. At the peak of the pandemic, between April and August 2020, each ward worker had to look after as many as 80 patients every day. We couldn’t go home for 21 days at a stretch because we had to work for seven days, and then quarantine ourselves at the hospital for 14 days. While we were put up at a ward within MMCH, the doctors and other senior officials were staying at hotels paid for by the government.
With the number of infections coming down, we now work for seven days without returning home and then isolate ourselves for three to four days either at home or at the facility provided by the government.
Assam has recorded more than two lakh coronavirus cases with 1,020 deaths as on January 7, 2021.
5.00 AM: I wake up early because Nalbari, my hometown, is about 70 kilometres away from Guwahati and it takes an hour and a half to reach the city and another 15-20 minutes to reach MMCH. I do the housework and cook breakfast and lunch for both my husband and myself before leaving for work by 6.30 AM.
I have been assigned another round of duty in the COVID-19 ward starting today, and so I packed my clothes and other essentials the previous night, as I won’t be coming home for a week.
Once I finish all my housework, my husband, who is a shopkeeper, drops me to the nearby bus stop and waits until I catch the inter-district bus to Guwahati.
8.00AM: After reaching the hospital, I head straight to the Bagri ward—a ward that serves as home for all the ward workers and cleaners on COVID-19 duty at the hospital. I leave my bag there, and have my breakfast along with a cup of tea with some of my colleagues at the cafeteria. I then head to the COVID-19 ward. Before entering the ward, I go to the changing room, sanitise myself, drink some water, and then wear a personal protective equipment (PPE) kit.
We cannot eat, drink, or even use the toilet while wearing PPE kits.
Apart from battling the constant fear of contracting the virus and transmitting the same to family members, one of the biggest challenges that we health workers have had to face is having to wear PPE kits throughout our eight-hour-long shifts. We cannot eat, drink, or even use the toilet while wearing PPE kits. Most of us have had to wear diapers so that we can relieve ourselves if needed.
8.30 AM: I enter the ward and check with the ward worker I am replacing if there is anything specific or urgent that needs to done or kept in mind with regards to any particular patient. She tells me that a patient, who was admitted the previous night, is not cooperating and wants to leave.
As health workers, we are used to dealing with patients who are non-cooperative and sometimes even aggressive. We usually try to talk to such patients to help them understand their situation. We also speak to their attendants to convince them to cooperate with us. If that doesn’t work, we report the patient to the sister-in-charge, who then takes it up with the respective doctor.
Some COVID-19 patients have been particularly hard to deal with because they often feel overwhelmed by the diagnosis of a fatal disease, combined with the idea of being isolated and unable to see their loved ones in person while admitted at the hospital.
After calming the patient down by talking to him, I begin my day’s work by changing the patients’ clothes and their bed sheets one by one. As I am doing this, a nurse tells me that an elderly patient has soiled herself. I rush to her, take off her clothes, clean her, and help her wear a fresh set of clothes. I also change the bed sheet and help her lie down.
11.00 AM: Once I finish changing bed sheets and clothes, I start dusting the furniture, medical equipment, windows, and so on. While hospitals have to be kept clean at all times, it is all the more important to make sure everything is sanitised and cleaned at regular intervals at a COVID-19 ward to prevent the virus from settling down on any surface.
While I am dusting, I also have to tend to patients who feel thirsty and cannot help themselves. I keep feeding them a few drops of water every now and then to make sure that they remain hydrated.
It is difficult to resist the urge to drink or eat while feeding patients, but I have slowly learnt to control this need.
1.00 PM: I begin feeding those patients who need my help with this activity—mostly the elderly. The meal prepared at the hospital for the patients consists of boiled food items with high protein content. We have to be careful not to force feed or overfeed the patients. It is difficult to resist the urge to drink or eat while feeding patients, but I have slowly learnt to control this need.
3.00 PM: After the patients are fed, I encourage and help the patients who are not severely infected to take a walk within the ward because it is important for them to be physically active and not confine themselves to their beds.
3.30 PM: A nurse tells me to prepare beds for two patients who are being admitted to the ward today. I lay fresh bed sheets and change the pillow covers. Once they arrive, I ask the patients to change their clothes which are then handed over to the cleaners to be sanitised.
4.00 PM: As my shift comes to an end, I hand over my duties to the next ward worker. There are usually three to four ward workers in one shift. I head to the changing room. After carefully taking off the PPE kit, I throw it in a garbage bag which is then discarded by the cleaners. I have to properly sanitise myself before stepping out of the ward.
I have my first sip of water in eight hours. These days I don’t feel as hungry as I used to in the beginning.
4.30 PM: After leaving the ward, I, along with other ward workers, go to the cafeteria. I have my first sip of water in eight hours. These days I don’t feel as hungry as I used to in the beginning. So, I prefer having some biscuits with tea.
We, then go to the Bagri ward, lie down for a while, chat among ourselves and call our family members. I don’t have children but I know some of my colleagues who have had a hard time being away from theirs.
8.00 PM: I go to the mess for dinner, after which I take a walk around the campus with my colleagues before heading back to the ward to sleep.
Although I have been lucky enough not to contract COVID-19 myself, I have seen a lot of patients and colleagues suffer due to this infection; some have even died. When I see people not wearing masks, not observing physical distancing, I feel sad. People have to understand the kind of pressure we have been through over the past few months and do their bit to keep the pandemic under control.
As told to IDR.