SUSHMITA GOSWAMI writes about the people at the forefront of the COVID-19 vaccination drive.
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They had signed up for a lifelong ‘war’ to keep people safe when they took up the job. But what they did not foresee was that they would be thrown into the face of an unprecedented ‘battle’, against an enemy that cannot be seen with the naked eye and with no sure means of vanquishing it. They do not work for any accolades or high praise. A sigh of relief or a smile of happiness is all they crave. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world exactly a year ago, they – the healthcare workers – went up-front to meet the challenges. The rest of the world may now be trying to resume their old routines; but for the doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, and all others associated with the profession, the battle is far from over.

From attending to the first COVID-19 hospitalised patient in Guwahati to administering the first dose of vaccine, for Daizi Das, a nurse at the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), the work is far from over. “I was in the team that took care of the first COVID-19 positive patient, Manish Tibrewal, at the GMCH. And now, I also happen to be the one to administer the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in our State,” Daizi confirms. She had stayed away from her seven-year-old son for most of last year, having also contracted the virus herself – much like many of her team members. “We stayed away from our families. We accepted it as we know that, as healthcare workers, duty comes before our own safety.”

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Two of her colleagues in the vaccination team, Jonaki Daimary and Hasina Khatun, had also tested positive for COVID-19, but they too continue to wage the battle. Hasina would visit her three-year-old child only on her day off as she was compelled to keep him with her parents at Hajo, about 30 kms from Guwahati. “We have no regrets. When people thank us after the vaccine, it is a big motivation for us,” Jonaki says. The fourth member of the team, Garima Das, had to double up as a data entry operator in the initial days of the launch of the inoculation drive. She would work late into the night, uploading details and photographs of the people vaccinated during the day on a mobile phone application, after making manual entries in a ledger during the day. Garima says, “It was not easy, especially since I have a three-year-old child. Now, others have been trained and deputed to make the entries in the mobile app; so, it’s a bit relaxing for me.” The other nurses, like Bibha Rabha and Deepamoni Deori, also share similar experiences – much like others in the same profession across the globe, of being separated from their families and still grappling with the ‘new normal’.

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Alongside the nurses, the cleaning staff has been among the most crucial in the fight against COVID-19. After discharging their hazardous duties since the outbreak of the pandemic, they are now equally involved in the vaccination process. Jitu Chamuah, who has been on COVID duty at the GMCH since last year, says, “This is our job. We have been doing it as best as we can.” Jitu and two other members of his team deputed at the vaccination centre, Buren Koch and Kartik Kalita, have taken their vaccine doses as they continue with their duties.

The nodal officer of the vaccination facility, Dr. Sthapana Sharma, has been a big motivator for her team. Recalling the initial days of the pandemic, she says, “I kept my two children with my parents for the first six months. We saw each other only over video calls and we would often get emotional. My elder one is appearing for his matriculation this year, but I am unable to give him any extra attention.” Dr. Roop Rekha Das, who is helping the vaccination team, along with her duty as the nodal officer of the COVID-19 screening centre at the GMCH, also shares a similar experience. She says, “I had initially sent my children to stay with my mother. But as they are very young, they could not stay away long. I am still taking all precautions before entering home, just like in the initial days.”

Though Dr. Sharma or Dr. Das did not test positive for COVID-19, they had their antibody count tested for the virus. And, like several doctors of the GMCH, a high antibody count was found, indicating that they had, in fact, contracted the virus at some point of time. “It’s a relief that we did not spread the virus to our families. Appreciation from our patients, and people in general, has been the motivator; but we do hope that this phase gets over soon,” Dr. Das adds.

More than 10,000 doses of the vaccine have been given at the GMCH centre since January 16, when the all-India inoculation drive was launched. After covering the staff of the GMCH as well as some healthcare professionals of Guwahati in the initial phase, the vaccines were rolled out for other frontline workers, like the security personnel, and have now been extended to all people above the age of 45 years.

“We are proceeding as per the government of India guidelines. At our personal levels, we are trying to ensure that those who come for the vaccine, return satisfied with not just the injection but also the environment here and our staff,” Dr. Sharma adds.

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