In 2020, health workers counted their COVID-19 casualties because the government did not

Health workers attend to a colleague who fainted due to exhaustion and long working hours at a COVID-19 testing centre in Delhi on 27 April 2020 Manish Swarup/AP photo
30 December, 2020

Thirty-five-year old Rehan Raja works with the National Health Mission as a monitoring and evaluation officer in Mewat district in Haryana. His work involves collecting information and data about central health programs and schemes in the district. This year he has been keeping records of a different kind—details of all the mission’s employees in India who have died of COVID-19. 

Raja is the president of the mission’s all-India union and has been gathering this data from union members across the country. “Whenever one of our workers gets infected, I am informed immediately,” he said. “We look out for them, see whether they are getting medical attention. So, if they pass away, of course we make a note of that.” According to his records, at least sixty NHM employees on COVID-19 duty had died from the disease by Christmas. 

Raja has had to keep this database because the government has not kept count of the dead. At the end of 2020—a year in which the pandemic killed millions including doctors, nurses, ward boys, ambulance drivers, community health workers—the government has not released any data on the number of healthcare workers who have been infected or died by COVID-19. Ashwini Kumar Choubey, the minister of state for health, wrote a reply to a question about the data in the Rajya Sabha, which said that since health is a state subject, the ministry of health and family welfare did not maintain such data at the central level. The government has washed its hands of all pandemic-related data. In September, it said it did not have data on the number of migrant workers who had lost jobs or who died while travelling home during the nationwide lockdown. The ministry of labour and employment said it did not have state-level data on the distribution of free ration to migrant labourers either. 

The numbers would have brought more clarity about how the health system was coping with the epidemic. They would have highlighted where the system was falling short in protecting workers and what needed to be done. There would have been a record of who should be compensated. “How hard can it be to maintain these records?” Raja asked. “Not keeping count goes to show how less the government cares for our welfare—for the sacrifices we and our families have made.”