“Why them, why not us”: a curious case of missing empathy in the second wave

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“Why them, why not us?”

A drive thru vaccination camp was conducted in Gurugram recently. The camp was conducted in a mall, vaccines were free and administered through the windows of the car. No autos, cycles or rickshaws were seen joining the queues.

In Haryana, people are driving out from cities to get vaccinated in Public Health Centres, sometimes driving for as long as 2 hours, quotas filling out fast as city dwellers throng these centres. It is to be expected, when schedules for free vaccination camps in public health clinics are shared on social media.

Yahaan zeher khaane ke paise nahin hain, tika kaise lagwayenge?” ask Mamta and Vikas, both cooks residing in a basti in Gurgaon’s posh Sector 53.

(We don’t have enough money to buy poison, how can we afford to pay for vaccinations?)

Both lost their jobs at the start of the second wave, and have two young children to feed, one just a few months old. They have no idea that vaccinations are also provided free. Other domestic workers in the basti who know this, are hesitating. The sheer distance and cost to reach these centres are deterrents.

Out of 669 women domestic workers from Delhi and Gurgaon, that the Martha Farrell Foundation COVID Relief team has spoken with in the last month, only 35 had been vaccinated with the first dose. Many did not know about the vaccinations, and many like Mamta and Vikas did not know that vaccinations are also being administered free of cost.

Registration on the CoWin app is mandatory, but finding a vaccination slot on the CoWin app is next to impossible. Strategies for ‘working the app’ are the subject of many conversations and I am told that people sit in front of their laptops all day to get a slot. In a country where more than 400 million people still have no access to the internet, where far fewer women have access to mobile phones and internet services  – critical questions on the intended recipients of the vaccine remain unanswered.

In Panipat, only 1 out of 153 women from 3 settlements that we spoke with, had received their vaccine – that too only one dose. She says it has been 40 days since she received the first dose and she has been so severely ill after that, that she would never go back for a second dose. Trying to find a solution, we spoke to a Sarpanch.

Mere haath bandhe hain, February mein mera charge khatam hua hain, hum kya kar sakte hain. Mere pati ke bhi naukri chali gayi. Hum bahut dare hue hain,” the Sarpanch said.

(My hands are tied. Even if I wanted to, I could not do anything. I was relieved of my duties in February. My husband also lost his job. We are very afraid.)

In the bastis, getting tested even at capped rates is a challenge. While there might be symptoms of COVID in almost all households, there is no proof of COVID, without testing.

Aath sau rupay lagta hain didi test karvane ka, humare madam ne kaha hum sabko test karvana padega. Hum sab test karvayenge toh hum khaayaenge kya? Aur humne suna hain ki test ke results toh sahi bhi nahin hote hain. Isse achcha to hum khaana toh na khaaye? Naukri toh vaise bhi jaani hain ab,” says a domestic worker champion working with Martha Farrell Foundation in Gurgaon.

(It costs 800 rupees to get a COVID test done. My employer is saying that our entire family should get tested. If we all spend money on the test, then what will we eat? Plus, we have heard that test results are not always accurate. Isn’t it better that we spend that money on food? We are going to lose our jobs no matter what.)

Domestic workers are being forced by their employers to live full time in COVID positive homes to cook and care for the infected families. When they’re being asked to put their own health at risk, is it not fair that they are recognised as frontline workers and vaccinated on priority?

Meanwhile, the scramble for critical lifesaving drugs, medical help, oxygen or beds in hospitals continues. Availability is dependent on access to critical information, networks and social media, large sums of money or persons of influence. Those who don’t have either are left to fend for themselves. No surprises which category domestic workers fall in.

The team from Martha Farrell Foundation, which is running a COVID Relief operation for domestic workers in Delhi NCR, has spoken with more than 1000 domestic workers over the past 3 weeks. Speaking to one such domestic worker, our team can hear the faint wailing of children in the background; we are told they haven’t eaten all day. All have said that food is an immediate need. Mamta and Vikas are feeding their children one mashed banana a day, because they cannot afford milk anymore.

Another domestic worker, Rinku (name changed), is 8 months pregnant and has complications due to secondary health issues. While she and her husband were working, they managed to go see a doctor in a private hospital. But the doctor has now informed her that they won’t be able to guarantee a bed in the hospital for her delivery. There are no beds and non COVID cases are not being entertained.

The National Commission for Women shared a helpline for pregnant women on social media. When our team made a phone call on the number, we got a message to say that only WhatsApp messages would be entertained. Another prerequisite was that the woman herself should make contact. Rinku does not have a smartphone.

Another domestic worker we spoke to was able to send the message, but was told that there are no guarantees for beds and medicines, and financial aid is also not possible.

So when someone in a WhatsApp group of a condominium asks “Why them why not us?” upon speculation that the health department is vaccinating domestic workers – it hurts.

How did we become so broken as a society? When did we become so impervious to the pain of others, when did empathy and compassion become so colored and fragmented?

In a heart breaking conversation with a young woman from Bawariya Basti, Panipat, she asks, “Hum toh waise bhi marnae waale hain, tikae kagwayein ya hospital tak pahunch jaayein.  Woh kya sab gareebo ko maarna chahate hain?”

(We are all going to die anyway whether we get vaccinated or if we ever reach the hospital. Do you think they want to kill all poor people?)

The second wave of the pandemic has impacted the lives of domestic workers in more ways than one can imagine. This time it’s different. There is a vaccine, but the shared feeling of helplessness and hopelessness is overbearing.

The dignity of domestic workers who are proud bread earners of their families is severely threatened. Food is an urgent need. Information is an urgent need. Access to basic sanitary material is an urgent need.

As an immediate response, Martha Farrell Foundation’s COVID Relief for Domestic Workers is providing basic food and sanitary essentials to domestic workers in Delhi, Faridabad, Gurgaon, Panipat and Sonipat. We’ve reached over 300 families already. We need help to reach more. To find out more about how you can help, click here.

Nandita Bhatt is the Director of the Martha Farrell Foundation, and has been engaged with domestic worker communities for over half a decade to advocate for their rights and voices.

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