Gufrana Khatoon, a nurse at Delhi’s Hakeem Abdul Hameed Centenary Hospital, tested positive for the novel coronavirus on 3 July. Khatoon had been working at HAHC on a contract basis for three years. She told me that even though she was deployed at its ward for coronavirus patients, the hospital refused to pay for her test. When she was still recovering under home quarantine, on 11 July, the hospital’s administration terminated the services of 84 contractually-hired nurses, including her. The dismissal shocked the nurses, especially as it came nine days after the hospital administration had released an office order directing health workers to not resign.
Nurses are feeling insecure and unsafe at their workplaces in several states, including Delhi, representatives from two nurses’ associations—United Nurses Association and Indian Professional Nurses Association—told me in July. The representatives said that hospitals are disregarding precautions that are necessary to protect nurses from the virus, arbitrarily terminating their contracts and imposing pay cuts. According to their accounts, hospitals are brazenly sidestepping guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and the central government by enforcing some of these actions. While the associations have raised these issues with chief ministers, central government authorities and even filed a petition in the Supreme Court, the situation on the ground remains bleak for India’s nursing staff.
During the pandemic, the Narendra Modi-led government famously showed gratitude towards healthcare workers by encouraging the public to bang utensils, in one instance, and making helicopters shower petals on hospitals, in another. Many individuals criticised the moves as publicity stunts, had pointed out that improving facilities for healthcare workers would have been a better expression of gratitude. Now, almost six months after the virus entered India, issues that news reports had highlighted in March and April—such as hospitals neglecting the safety of health workers—appear to persist in many hospitals.
According to news reports, more than two thousand healthcare workers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus till June. The situation appears stark in Delhi, where 226 workers from 21 hospitals and clinics had reportedly tested positive till April end itself. In a case about health workers’ rights, on July 24, the Delhi High Court noted “the aggravated situation as narrated by the petitioner regarding approximately 20 deaths of the nurses and approximately 3,000 nurses having been infected.”
Nurses who worked in Delhi hospitals and representatives of nurses’ associations explained how hospitals, especially private ones, were ignoring guidelines issued by the WHO and the ministry of health. The WHO has emphasised the use of appropriate personal protective equipment and how using parts of the PPE kit more than once can be unsafe. On 8 April, the Supreme Court of India, too, directed state governments to ensure availability of appropriate PPE for all health workers, including nurses, who treat coronavirus patients. But in multiple instances, when the health workers urged hospitals to provide them with appropriate PPE, the administrations tried to strong-armed them into silence, nurses told me.
“Initially, they were not giving us PPE,” one of the 84 dismissed nurses at HAHC told me on the condition of anonymity. “I got seven normal masks till mid-July since the pandemic began.” In an earlier report published by The Caravan, a nurse at HAHC mentioned that the nursing staff even struggled to get access to clean drinking water on duty.
HAHC’s nurses had raised these issues with the administration several times in June. They planned go on a strike from 15 July if their demands were not met. But on 11 July, the administration terminated the contracts of 84 nurses. The termination order said that the nurses’ contracts were due for extension between February and 10 July and that these cases could not be processed due to the pandemic. It also mentioned that the management would be conducting walk-in interviews to fill vacancies and the nurses could seek fresh appointments then. “If they didn’t want to renew contracts after February,” Khatoon asked, “why did they make us work for months after the contract period?”
While the order stated that cases for the extension could not be processed due to the pandemic, it added a vague insinuation against the nurses, too, according to Khatoon. The order said, “The cases with regard to regular attendance, absence from office due to sanctioned leave, and those who have been absent without intimation/approval were put up.” But Khatoon told me that the suggestion that the nurses had to be dismissed as they abdicated their responsibilities was unfounded. “I was never absent,” she said. “I had even walked ten kilometres to report for duty. A few nurses couldn’t go to work on some days because their buildings, streets were sealed and because of the lockdown they couldn’t go travel.”