Five of 84 former nurses of Delhi’s Hakeem Abdul Hameed Centenary Hospital who were terminated overnight moved the Delhi High Court on 17 July to challenge their sudden dismissal. They had been let go six days earlier. The nurses, hired on a contractual basis, demanded action against the hospital administration for firing them arbitrarily and without giving any notice. The termination order, dated 11 July, stated, “Extension in the contract of 84 staff nurses was due between Feb 2020 till 10th July 2020. The cases could not be processed due to prevalence of Covid-19 pandemic.” Nurses I spoke to said they were caught off guard as just nine days before, the administration of the 470-bedded COVID-19 hospital had released an office order directing health workers to refrain from sending resignation applications.
The petitioners, as well as other nurses, said that the hospital administration was victimising them as they had raised alarm over the lack of precautions taken to protect the staff from the novel coronavirus. “We had to approach the high court because we had repeatedly raised basic demands like drinking water, proper PPE kits”—personal-protective equipment—“and masks before the management. So they released 84 of us,” Aavesh Khan, one of the dismissed nurses and a petitioner in the case, told me. He added that the dismissed nurses include two who are recuperating from the novel coronavirus and one who is on maternity leave.
The administration gave no indication to the nurses that they were going to be dismissed, Khan and Anjum Sheikh, another nurse who had been dismissed and a co-petitioner, told me. “I received my salary on 1 June,” Sheikh said. “My in-charge said that the process”—of extending the contract—“is done and ‘that’s why your salary came to your account.’ Our in-charges said that ‘if your salary is coming, it means your extension is done.’ So we relaxed.” She said no one told them 11 July would be their last day. “They messaged us on WhatsApp on a Saturday evening, so that we would not even have the chance to question them.”
Khan said he was also given a similar verbal assurance. “In March, we had asked our in-charges whether our contract has been extended,” he said. “They responded that ‘your salaries are being processed, which means that your contract will continue.’” According to him, nurses had completed the requisite procedures for extension of service but they did not receive any documentation to prove it. “They made us work for four months without consent or any official notice about the extension of our contracts.” Moreover, the petition said, the hospital had violated the contract signed with the nurses. “The action of the hospital in dismissing the 84 staff nurses without one month notice is again a flagrant violation of the contract on the basis of which these dismissed nurses were hired,” they wrote. According to a copy of an appointment letter from 2016, which is annexed in the petition, the administration was required to give one month’s notice to a staff nurse before termination of service.
Since 15 July, nurses whose services were terminated have been organising protests daily within the hospital premises in Hamdard Nagar. A contractually-hired nurse who was not among the 84 who had been discharged from their duties told me she had been also been participating in the protests regularly in between her shifts. The nurse, who requested not to be named, described some instances which showed the administration’s apathy towards the nurses. She said that the nurses had to raise alarm to even get access to clean drinking water while on duty. “They gave us five N-95 masks in the beginning. If your mask gets spoiled, you have to submit an application,” she said. “Do you want to get tested for COVID? There is paperwork. Do you want to get a mask issued? There is paperwork.”
The nurse said she had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. By her estimate, at least ten nurses at the hospital have contracted the virus since the onset of the pandemic as there is no designated area to safely discard and change COVID-19 protective gear. She told me that the hospital expected them to pay 50 percent of the testing charges. “I fought to avoid paying for it,” she said. “I asked why should I make the payment as a staff of the hospital? But many nurses paid to get themselves tested.”
She sounded frustrated with the care she received as a COVID patient at the hospital. Initially, she shared a general ward with other patients. “When there was an increase in the number of COVID patients, I was shifted to another ward in a floor that was completely empty,” she said. “There was no nursing staff for my medical supervision. They told me that if anything happens, give them a call. If a patient is in a bad condition, how will he make a phone call?”
The staffers flagged their issues to the administration several times, she said. “On 24 June, we gave our first written complaint to the management. Even before that, we were raising verbal complaints.” According to her, they had a meeting with MS Kidwai, the additional medical superintendent of the hospital, during which they told him about their requirements, including N-95 masks. “He claimed that all of it is being provided,” she said. “But we were not being provided with everything we required.” She told me no one was making sure that the health workers had the equipment they needed. “No one was overseeing distribution. No one from the management was even taking rounds to check whether everything was working well.”
The nurses at HAHC had raised their complaints with the Indian Professional Nurses Association, an association for registered nurses which operates in several states, on 27 June. The IPNA then wrote to Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, highlighting these issues. Several nurses told me they believed that the administration has retaliated against them for reaching out to the Delhi government.