For the last few months, every time Binda Prabha, an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) currently deputed at the Gopalganj district of Bihar, steps out of her home in the mornings, it is with great risk to her own health.
In the times of the present global pandemic, her work largely involves going door-to-door to disseminate information and surveys COVID-19, to meet the healthcare needs of her community – and despite the challenges that come with working tirelessly on the ground when all of us are vulnerable to the virus, what drives her is her endless zeal for serving the community.
And yet, what she deals with, from day-to-day, is the looming shadow of stigma.
“To serve people, we are daily putting our own and our families’ lives at risk,” says Prabha.
Binda Prabha“However, it is very upsetting when community members abuse, attack and threaten us, and accuse us of spreading “Corona” in their village. In one village, community members snatched my bags along with other belongings when I was on duty for doing the door-to-door screening. I was threatened and held responsible for exposing others to the coronavirus.”
This is not an isolated experience. “Many front line workers like me are facing difficulties in performing their duties. We need support and respectful behaviour in order to do our jobs and protect communities from the deadly virus,” continues Prabha. And it’s true.
Due to misinformation and prevailing myths within the rural communities where frontline workers like ANMs, ASHAs, and other field workers are tasked with battling the spread of the virus, the pushback from the communities often makes their job doubly difficult.
Due to the nature of its transmission and limited treatment options, there is reigning fear and panic around the novel coronavirus among people across demographics in rural communities. Even after COVID-positive patients are being cured or released from quarantine and are medically not being considered a risk for spreading the virus, stories from the field indicate that migrants and recovered patients have been at the receiving end of community stigmatization and ostracism.
The frontline workers who have been working in close proximity with such patients are coming under fire too. “I had to face lots of hostility and abuse from the community members for the past two months,” says Meenu Devi, an Aanganwaadi Worker from the district of East Champaran in Bihar.
Meenu Devi “Whenever Iused to enter a village for door-to-door COVID surveys, assessing migrants’ health at the panchayatquarantine centre, and other work; children along with other community members would startshouting ‘bhago re, aa gayi Corona Failanewali’’ (run away, the “corona spreader” has arrived).”
Healthcare workers have relentlessly dedicated the past three months to provide care and medical, clinical, and community support during a time of great crisis and upheaval. Their contribution is not only essential but is quite literally life-saving. Yet, such stigma against essential healthcare workers only undermines diagnosis, treatment, and successful health outcomes; adding to the stress and anxiety these healthcare workers already face while carrying out their duties. Addressing this stigma is fundamental – not only for delivering quality healthcare but for improving the working conditions and environments in which these healthcare workers work every day.
To counter the stigma and prejudice against frontline workers during the pandemic, what is truly needed is the mobilization of entire communities. There is a need to create credible, reliable sources of information at the rural level.
There is also a need to strongly discourage stigmatizing language in the way we talk about COVID-19 and neutralize misinformation, debunk myths, break down stereotypes that feed prejudice within communities.
Often, the mobilization of communities begins through strong leadership from the top, and that is the strategy that the Centre for Calatalyzing Change (C3), an NGO, applied in helping this cause gain more momentum. C3 has been working with cohorts of Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) from local Panchayati Raj Institutions in Bihar since 2007, empowering them to become self-sufficient leaders and be vocal in local policy and decision-making. And so, during the pandemic, C3 harnessed the leadership skills of these women through its “Champion Intervention” in ten districts, 26 blocks, 349-gram panchayats of Bihar, where C3 empowered them to not only monitor and advocate for quality maternal, infant and child nutrition and health services but also to carry out felicitation ceremonies for frontline workers to help defeat the prevailing myths that surround these workers, as well as boosting the healthcare workers’ morale.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. More and more community members need to be mobilized in the process of defeating this stigma.
If these brave “ Corona Warriors” do not get the support and encouragement they need in carrying out the herculean task of dealing with the deadly and daunting COVID-19 pandemic, then it is society as a whole that will suffer.
And yet, one small step towards encouraging frontline workers can go a long way. Meenu Devi, the same Aanganwadi worker who once had to bear the brunt of the community’s mistreatment, was also one of the frontline workers who was felicitated through C3’s intervention.
“After this program, I started receiving the support of community members,” says Meenu Devi.
“Pachchi Devi (One of the Panchayati ward members who initiated the felicitation) also followed me to some areas and convinced people to cooperate with me. Now people see me as a ‘Sainik’ (Warrior) who is protecting the village from the deadly virus.”
(Prakash Ranjan is Senior Program Officer, Centre for Catalyzing Change)
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