‘Seems like there are two pandemics happening, depending on who you are’, I hear on a podcast. It was spoken in context of the effects of social distancing, pandemic and lockdown based on race and gender in the US. The jobs which were, until the pandemic struck, seen to be contractual, dispensable, with a vast army of job seekers willing to take up are now ‘essential’ jobs. The workers ‘essential’ workers. Essential then is a word that must at all times lend to our convenience. Countries and cities are kept functional by these essential workers now, when no one wants to get out of their house exposing themselves to the virus, they are the ones putting themselves on the line. The pandemic may prove to be a significant moment in history of workers’ struggle in the modern times. If we have the union of sanitation workers marching again to the Town Hall here in the city, we might see a different reception by the city’s municipal corporation than the legendary indifference with which they work inside even as the workers gather outside their premises all morning, only to demand timely payment of their wages.
While the cities in India are beginning to open up, the risk of infections and contagion seems high enough. In reopening, the list of essential services and products are being shaped. One’s essential isn’t another’s often. However, in our modern lives the pandemic has made it clear who and what makes our lives tick. For instance, that dubious acronym ‘ASHA’ and ‘ASHA worker’ who became critical to the frontline of public health response across India, stands for Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA). This ASHA Worker, deemed essential and extensively relied upon by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, is by definition a community health ‘activist’. In the Ministry’s annual report of 2017-18, ASHA workers are listed under ‘major achievements under NRHM/NHM’ –
More than 10 lakh ASHAs are in place across the country and serve as facilitators, mobilizers and providers of community level care. ASHA is the first port of call in the community especially for marginalized sections of the population, with a focus on women and children. Since 2013, when the National Urban Health Mission was launched, ASHA are being selected in urban areas as well. Several evaluations and successive Common Review Missions show that the ASHA has been a key figure in contributing to the positive outcomes of increase in institutional delivery, immunization, active role in disease control programmes (Malaria, Kala-azar, and Lymphatic Filariasis, in particular) and improved breastfeeding and nutrition practices. The majority of States have in place an active training and support system for the ASHA to ensure continuing training, on site field mentoring, and performance monitoring.
I hope the annual report of 2020-21 will review ASHA workers’ role in the pandemic. For the Ministry to revise their below minimum wage salary is to expect a change more radical than the current times. For sure, this major achievement of the Ministry, the ASHA worker, has shown exceptional sense of duty and led the Covid health response in India with extreme risk to their own health. All this even when the money they are paid is termed ‘honorarium’. It is not a salary. In Karnataka they are paid INR 4000 per month. A recent strike called by the workers was to demand a fixed salary of at least INR 12000 per month.
A state transport conductor runs 21 kilometres to report on duty because he knows that he is transporting health workers to their jobs in the morning and he must get to his bus. Several delivery workers go out of their way carrying insanely heavy loads on their motorbikes to ensure that the food supplies reach those who have called for it. The postmen are keeping up the delivery of parcels across the country. The sanitation workers are walking the streets spraying disinfectants. The haul waste from doorsteps even as the doors push out the garbage and slam shut. Everyone can be essential relative to the other reference you pick. But there are those who are absolutely essential when the other reference is our bare minimum survival in this threatened world. Essential would be a loaded term in the post-pandemic world.