Fighting COVID-19 in Rural Sikkim: The Relentless ASHA Workers

The past year has been one of the most unpredictable, uncertain and difficult ones faced by the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the world leaving people shaken. In these difficult times, many people have come to the forefront to help the world in every way possible. We have seen doctors, nurses, health workers, police officials, administrators and volunteers working day and night to bring about a change and better the situation in all ways possible. But apart from all the mentioned frontline warriors, one category of volunteers who should be acknowledged, appreciated and applauded is the ASHA workers at the village level.

Fighting COVID-19 in Rural Sikkim: The Relentless ASHA Workers
image source: Twitter

The past year has been one of the most unpredictable, uncertain and difficult ones faced by the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the world leaving people shaken. In these difficult times, many people have come to the forefront to help the world in every way possible. We have seen doctors, nurses, health workers, police officials, administrators and volunteers working day and night to bring about a change and better the situation in all ways possible. But apart from all the mentioned frontline warriors, one category of volunteers who should be acknowledged, appreciated and applauded is the ASHA workers at the village level.

Recently, on  May 26, 2021, the Chief Minister of Sikkim, Prem  Singh  Tamang announced a one-time incentive of Rs. 10,000 each from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund  (CMRF) to all the ASHA workers in Sikkim for their seamless efforts in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic.

ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) is a scheme instituted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare under the National Rural Health Mission in 2015. The aim of this mission is to have one ASHA worker in every Indian village. ASHA workers constitute female volunteers who worked as community health workers at a village level. They are trained in basic knowledge of health care and sanitation including basic first-aid and act as a bridge linking peripheral health systems to the people at the grass-roots level.

In-state of Sikkim, ASHA workers have been playing a predominant role alongside doctors, nurses and other health workers in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic since last year. Before the pandemic, their responsibilities included creating awareness among the villagers about basic health and sanitation. Their responsibilities also included Antenatal Care (ANC) and Post-natal Care (PNC) among the villagers.

According to a doctor who practices medicine in rural South Sikkim, the ASHA workers have contributed largely to the improvement of health care in the villages, she said, “they (ASHA workers) have played an important role in decreasing the rate of maternal mortality and infant mortality in the rural regions”.

According to her, their general responsibilities include spreading awareness about health and sanitation, home visits in times of medical emergencies, maternal care and so on. And after the break-out of the pandemic, their responsibilities have altered a little bit in order to meet the demands of the present situation.

Since March 2021, ASHA workers have been actively working in the villages of Sikkim in creating awareness among the villagers regarding safety measures to be followed during the pandemic. Alongside, they also conduct regular home visits to get updates on people who have tested positive, and regular updates on the phone. They also trace primary contacts and act as a bridge between the doctors and the patients. They provide basic medication and keep updating the status of the patients. In fact, they also come in contact with people who have tested positive on a daily basis and fearlessly carry on with their work. A few cases of ASHA workers having tested positive were also reported. But they all took to self-isolation and made sure they didn’t spread the virus by acting as primary contacts. And as soon as they completed their quarantine period, they were back on their feet, continuing their service to society and mankind.

According to a doctor who is working closely with ASHA workers, “They (ASHA) are actively working and supporting in all ways and are doing a tremendous job. They are quick in learning and adapting to situations and their service to the society cannot be summarized with words.”

An ASHA worker from West Sikkim, who has otherwise been a volunteer since 2007, shared her experiences in working among her villagers. She had become a volunteer out of her will to extend her support to her community. She had actively been involved in programs and drives that dealt with creating and spreading awareness among maternity issues. She was also a part of polio-vaccination drives. She lives in West Sikkim with her family of her husband and two daughters. For over the past year she has been involved in COVID duty.

Her responsibilities include keeping track of visitors to the village, paying home visits to COIVD affected patients and maintaining record and regular updates on their health conditions. These updates were regularly submitted with the Medical Officer on a daily basis. She even distributes basic medication and has been trained in basic sanitation and medication. She has attended seven training programs organized at different points in time. She still continues to carry out her duty actively amidst the pandemic.

One major issue she has been facing is that of social ostracization in her village. Since her responsibility and duty demands her to come in contact with many COVID affected patients on a daily basis, she has had to face issues returning home every day in her neighbourhood. The pandemic having developed a fear in the minds of the general public, such health workers who are working for the very society face a great deal of exclusion in their surroundings as people fear they might have been infected. But she doesn’t let this alter her journey in fighting the COVID pandemic and extending her support to anyone in need. She wishes that the villagers be more accepting and that normalcy returns for the benefit of everyone.

Another ASHA worker from North Sikkim expresses similar concerns as she too faces social exclusion. She has been an ASHA worker since 2015 and since the break out of the pandemic, she has also been actively involved in COVID duty. Her responsibilities are similar to that of her fellow sister in West Sikkim. She has been busy maintaining records of health updates, supplying medicines and creating awareness among her villagers. She also participates in regular counselling among the villagers with regards to COVID-19. She is thankful to the Committee formed at the panchayat level and shares they have also been playing an active role in controlling the situation. She appeals to the people to act more responsible and come forward if they face any difficulties and maintain the necessary safety measures.

ASHA when translated to English means ‘hope’. In times of great difficulty, this group of women volunteers are doing a great service to society and are indeed the frontline warriors in fighting the pandemic. As human beings, let us all come together to salute these heroes and thank them for their service. And above that, instead of excluding them and ostracizing them, we must all learn to be grateful to them for their work. And in times like this, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is most important that we all become responsible and create self-awareness and behave responsibly and extend our support to the ones in need. Self-realization and responsibility are two fundamental ways in which we can contribute to this battle. Together, we shall overcome these difficult times.

 By Vaidyanath Nishant. The author is a freelance writer, he can be contacted at vaidyanathnishant7@gmail.com