2020, 12 months of the pandemic: Forced into COVID obligation with a new child, TN nurse reveals unfair therapy of contractual well being staff


When issues went uncontrolled, Sharon, a govt nurse in Tamil Nadu paid Rs 2 lakh to get transferred close to her hometown, however her troubles are removed from over as she now travels six hours a day to work and again all for a meager wage of Rs 14,000 a month

Editor’s observe: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods in myriad methods. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, particularly for individuals from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part seriesFirstpost explores how people from completely different walks of life lived via the 12 months of the pandemic. This is an element 4 of the sequence.

Read half 1 of the sequence here, half 2 here and half 3 here.


“The manner in which people talk down in any given circumstance is what gets to me the most. There is a hierarchy at every level, from medical officers to staff nurses, from the nurses who are permanent to the temps, from these nurses to sanitary workers. I know this is how it works, but I didn’t feel it this much when I worked at a private hospital. Here, it is just inhuman at times,” says Sharon.

That Sharon is outspoken is one thing I realised inside a single assembly. When I visited COVID-19 care centres throughout Tamil Nadu, only a few healthcare staff spoke about their working circumstances to me with full honesty. Sharon alternatively, walked as much as me minutes after realising that I’m a journalist.

She advised me that she is attempting for a switch to her hometown since she has an toddler at residence and that though she’s breastfeeding, she is doing COVID-19 obligation. She introduced up the difficulty of regularisation of nurses, together with herself, who had been recruited in 2015. This was in May.

When I re-visited the district that she was working in for a follow-up story, I couldn’t discover her. After inquiring round and some cellphone calls, I used to be advised that she had transferred out of the district, one thing which is normally near unattainable in such a short while. I caught maintain of her quantity and gave her a name.

Sharon was transferred to her hometown, however not as I had assumed. She needed to pay Rs 2 lakh for the switch order. The complete transaction occurred via varied networks inside the institution. However, when the switch order did arrive, she realised it nonetheless required her to journey three hours from her hometown to her office.

Every day, she travels 45 kilometres by bus and 18 kilometres on a motorbike a method, spending six hours a day simply commuting to work and again.

“It is all a gamble, at the end of the day,” says Sharon. But is it so, particularly if all of the circumstances that encompass it are skewed in opposition to you?

For Sharon, issues went south even earlier than the 12 months 2020, designated as the “International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife” by the WHO.

In December of 2019, Sharon obtained her posting as a government-appointed nurse, a month after she had delivered her second born. She had appeared for the Tamil Nadu Medical Recruitment Board (TNMRB) Exams in her third trimester. An event to have fun, nonetheless, rapidly become anxiousness when she realized that her posting wasn’t in her hometown or wherever round.

Moving away from residence wouldn’t have been an issue if she weren’t the mom of two, one an toddler, and the opposite a toddler. The pay was lesser than what she was incomes in the intervening time at a non-public hospital, and so had been the advantages. But the hope of life getting higher sooner or later pushed her husband to stop his job, and the household moved 500 Kms away, to a brand new city.

With a 45-day previous toddler, Sharon reported to obligation instantly, hoping that she can be granted maternity depart. Permanent nurses are given 9 months of maternity depart. After per week of labor, Sharon was advised she will be able to take the depart however there can be no pay.

This is just not the case only for Sharon, however for all who’re appointed below the MRB postings. From the time one is recruited until they’re regularised, nurses obtain a consolidated pay of Rs 14,000 a month. This means there isn’t any ESI or insurance coverage. There isn’t any maternity depart or sick depart. There is one informal depart each month.

The Rs 14,000 month-to-month wage, nonetheless, was hard-fought.

After a high-pitched battle in 2017, which noticed greater than 3,500 nurses tenting outdoors on the Directorate of Medical and Rural Health Services (DMS) in Chennai — the state authorities did not even permit the nurses to make use of the bathrooms throughout the protest — the nurses’ wage was raised from Rs 7,000 to Rs 14,000. And that too, solely after a route of the Madras High Court. This increase meant nothing although. Almost all nurses’ associations have dubbed the Rs 14,000 wage as grossly insufficient, and are nonetheless demanding ‘equal work for equal pay’ in step with the directive of the Madras High Court from 2018, apart from searching for an entire upheaval of the consolidated pay contract system. Their demand is that they be handled like another authorities worker since they’re recruited solely after clearing the TNMRB exams.

Three years and a worldwide pandemic later, hikes, regularisations, or any adjustments are nowhere to be seen. Far from making working circumstances higher for nurses, the postings granted after the 2019 examination didn’t consider the placement choice, says Sharon. Many nurses that I met because the onset of the pandemic, throughout districts, have the identical story.

“It isn’t that we can’t move, but how do we move with families, with such meager pay and no allowances whatsoever,” questions Sharon.

A directive of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2016 directed all non-public hospitals to pay a minimal of Rs 20,000 to nurses working at their institutions and supply for all advantages. It is ironic that the identical is but to be carried out for presidency nurses.

The excuse that has been utilized by the Central Government whereas responding to courts pulling them up for underpaying nurses has been that well being is a state topic, and therefore there’s solely a lot that they’ll do to get state governments to pay their nurses.

The Tamil Nadu authorities, on its half, has performed nothing to handle the grievances of the nurses, apart from repress any type of discontent with an iron hand.

“The unions mostly say nothing against the government, in fact, some of them only do this transfer brokerage,” says Sharon.

Most of the unions are led by regularised staff.

When Sharon joined back for duty in February, after two months of unpaid leave, she was posted at a COVID-19 care centre. This is while she was breastfeeding her baby. Her responsibilities involved interacting with positive patients every day.

Illustration by Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar

“It was a risk but I had no choice. Though there is a government order against this, it wasn’t a practical possibility as the department is already understaffed. I had to do it. I just washed up well every time after I went home, I couldn’t do anything more,” she explains.

A month into this, Sharon’s baby fell sick with a high fever and severe wheezing problems. She wasn’t given leave. The baby recovered the first time. The second time the child suffered from a bout of diarrhoea. Again, she was not given leave. All this pushed the family to leave overnight to their hometown.

By now, her husband was really worried. He told her that there is no point in waiting for a transfer, that they might as well borrow the money for the transfer and move. Sharon was in a fix, but she was worried for her child. She reached out to others who had followed the same route and they put her in touch with a broker, who helped her with the transaction.

Once they received the transfer order and moved back, things didn’t brighten up for Sharon though as now she had to travel six hours a day. Initially, she was kept out of COVID-19 obligation as she was breastfeeding, however when her little one turned one 12 months previous, they put her into COVID-19 duty, which involved her being quarantined away for more than a week. During this period, she had to discontinue breastfeeding her child.

“I wanted to breastfeed him for at least six months more, but again, I had no choice. I was told that six months of breastfeeding is sufficient and beyond that, I won’t be allowed to keep away from COVID-19 duty,” she says.

While constantly dealing with a sense of disillusionment and helplessness, Sharon is still very ambitious about her career. She wants to pursue a master’s if possible in the future.

“If I get regularised, then I’ve been told that I can take a few years off to study. Maybe then. But 8,000 nurses recruited before me after the 2015 TNMRB exams are yet to be regularised. I don’t know when my chance will come,” she says.

Sharon is in the eligible category for recruitment to AIIMS, after appearing for an exam this year, and she hopes she will soon get a step up from where she is at the moment.

“This is actually a step down for me,” she explains.

Sharon worked as a nurse for seven years before she wrote the TNMRB exams. But when she joined as a government nurse, she was hired at the entry-level. The board doesn’t take into account the varied experience of nurses who write the exams and treats them all as what we commonly refer to as ‘freshers’, irrespective of how many years of work they’ve already put in. Sharon, for instance, has been in highly challenging situations when she worked as an ICU nurse. But now, she works at a PHC, at the entry-level.

When she transferred to her hometown, the other nurses at the PHC did not even allow her to wear a nurse’s coat. “They said it is only for those with 10 years of experience, and that I should wear a dupatta instead,” recollects Sharon. She didn’t say anything, she just stopped wearing her coat.

That the TNMRB has no rationale or a system in place to account for the work experience of nurses taking their exams is worrisome. In addition, the Department of Health and Family Welfare has no system in place for non-regularised nurses like Sharon to share their grievances, whether it is work-related such as transfers or sexual harassment, or personal health problems.

All these nurses are at the mercy of the medical officers they report to. There was nobody that Sharon could turn to, immediately after she was pushed into work in 2020. When her infant son fell sick, Sharon wasn’t allowed to take leave both times. The second time she just left for her hometown with her sick baby, refusing to work anymore. But after a week, she decided to return as her job was the only source of income at the time.

And when she did try to explain her situation to the medical officer, she was subject to a volley of accusatory questions. “I simply stood there, not understanding what to do or say,” says Sharon.

Since the beginning of 2020, Sharon suffered from extreme postpartum despair for months, along with her work circumstances solely amplifying it. She might talk about this with no one at work. There isn’t any area for this dialog, not to mention the choices for counselling or therapy.

Sharon is glad that her husband, with whom she was in love since her college days, is round to handle the youngsters. Otherwise, she isn’t positive if she would nonetheless be working.

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