KOLKATA: “We get up and we do our job because if we don’t, who else will?” said a frontline worker from Karnataka. As India grapples with the pandemic—men and women in white coats and scrubs are toiling day and night, striving to flatten the curve.

While the media eulogizes frontline workers for their immense contribution, calling them ‘heroes’ and ‘soldiers’—the frontline workers themselves, have a different story to tell. Since no PPE kits exist for protecting one’s mental well-being, how are frontline workers navigating the pressures of their job with the added fear of the virus?

In situations of anxiety, panic and fear, the support that immediate family can provide is often irreplaceable. “It’s very difficult, to be honest,” said Arjun Talapatra. Born and brought up in Kolkata, Talapatra is currently working as a post-graduate trainee in Manipal, Karnataka—two thousand kilometers from home.

“I have my parents and grandparents back home and some have health concerns themselves. The virus for them can be extremely life threatening. While they are also worried about me as I deal with possible COVID patients every day,” he said.

Mausumi Das, a frontline worker from Kolkata who is currently practicing in Hyderabad told The Citizen, “I haven’t gone back home since February. I can always reach out to my family virtually, but there’s not much you can do virtually. Each day is a challenge, but coming back home, managing my own food to my daily necessities—surviving on my own is very difficult.”

Anujeet Paul, who also hails from Kolkata and is practicing ophthalmology in Pondicherry, said, “Since we are posted at our Covid duties the chances of us going back home are very bleak. I am not allowed to travel for fourteen days after completing a Covid duty. Neither can I take leave for fourteen days in general for travel after a Covid duty.”

Frontline workers told The Citizen that their work hours range from six, eight to 12 and even 18 hour shifts daily, during which they often go hungry.

Paul described the reality of the situation, stating, “Our nutrition suffers. We are without food, for 6 hours and even 8 hours a day. There are no home cooked meals and most hostels here are running at minimum capacity.”

While existing research suggests that eating patterns affect not just our physical health, but also our mental health and wellbeing, Talapatra exclaimed, “We simply do not eat.”

As India sees a rise in COVID cases every day, the need for safety of medical professionals becomes indispensable. The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), considered a prerequisite for frontline workers, nevertheless comes with its own set of constraints.

“It is very difficult to communicate or even breathe, but no matter how confined we feel in the PPE kit we cannot do without it,” Talapatra said. “We do not carry our cell phones; it almost feels like we are cut off from the outside world,” he added.

According to frontline workers, even though the PPE kit proves difficult to work with and may be physically and psychologically exhausting, the intention to provide efficient and good care nevertheless remains unaltered.

While the fight against the pandemic becomes all the more fierce with every passing day, what remains unchanged is the menstrual cycle. The discomfort and uneasiness that comes with menstruation while working several hours on foot is a challenging task most female frontline workers have to face and deal with.

“It is very uncomfortable,” Das said. “The PPE kits are very tight to prevent air flow but at that time if you’re menstruating, that in general is an extremely painful situation to be in,” she added.

For most frontline workers, making it to the end of the day by serving the ill without falling sick themselves is an achievement in itself. However, many instances of social stigmatization and rejection of frontline workers have surfaced.

Das recalled one such occasion: “Hyderabad was experiencing extremely hot weather, and getting few hours of sleep was becoming impossible for me. I ended up ordering an air conditioner online, but what remained as a pertinent issue was that the individuals who were to install the AC refused to enter my hostel because it was within the premises of the Covid-centric hospital.”

“I struggled for weeks, I called for help so many times but ultimately I had to get a local electrician who agreed to enter the premises to do it for me,” Das said.

Talapatra added, “Although I have personally not faced any instance of this sort, I do know acquaintances whose neighbors were not happy with having frontline workers living at such close proximity with them.”

Atia Rahman, who works at a medical administration post in a Kolkata hospital told The Citizen, “Initially there was so much of phobia around Covid that people did not even want to be in the same building that had a Covid positive patient.”

When fighting a war against the pandemic, frontline workers say demotivation is not an option.

“Our inner drive keeps us going,” Talapatra stated. “I do not mean to glorify our profession. No one chooses to be a doctor without knowing that we’ll have a difficult life in the first place. We don’t have time for friends and family or to watch Netflix and call up people for a chat. We definitely have less free time and the only option is to be okay with that,” he said.

“We realized that as a professional community, we were not dealing with all this alone and we could get through this together,” Rahman added.

“Mental health is not only essential for frontline workers alone. A hospital is made of various staff members from doctors to nurses to housekeeping, the mental health of every single one of them is important,” she said.

“The key to mental health is communication. We sit together as a team and chat. Communication is the only way to get through this and you have to keep talking. We talk to our staff regarding what is bothering them. We provide transportation to those facing problems and arrange for food that could be purchased within the premises of the hospital,” Rahman told The Citizen.

Paul explained that there exist sensitisation programs for wearing masks, PPE kits and even programs for mental health and emotional well-being for frontline workers. “As residents, certain counseling sessions are mandatory for us. However, in case the need arises, the option to voluntarily go for counseling is always there,” he said.

“Even as doctors all of us have a chance of catching the virus and not making it,” Talapatra stated. “Every day you go to hospital you feel like you might get it today, and the fear—that if as doctors we come in contact with the virus, we might spread it to not only our loved ones but also other patients—is always there,” he said.

Paul explained that the “solution” for frontline workers is to “stay distracted”. “If you are constantly thinking about when your duty will finish, or when your shift will end it will probably never come to an end,” he said.

Frontline workers seem to have realised that what they are facing will become mundane and habitual even before they have time to come to terms with it. COVID is here to stay, and healthcare workers have accepted it as an inevitable fate.

The above frontline workers are associated with Doctors For A Cause—a social welfare organisation and a community of doctors, medical and non-medical individuals.

They can be found at:

Instagram: @doctorsforacause

Facebook: Doctors for a Cause

Cover Photo: BASIT ZARGAR/The Citizen

Aniba Junaid is currently an undergraduate student at Loreto College, Kolkata.