The Gaon Connection team met with 'Corona Warriors' in Jaipur, Rajasthan, who work relentlessly in crematoriums and hospitals, and drive ambulances, but face increased discrimination due to the nature of their work.
Forty-five-year-old Durgesh Kumar has been working at the Adarsh Nagar Shamshan Ghat in Jaipur for 10 years now. He helps perform the last rites of the deceased. “During the Corona period, I lit as many as forty bodies a day. I can’t tell you the pain and grief I continue to feel,” he said, his mask caked with ash from the burning pyres around him.
On being asked how he feels being a ‘Corona Warrior’, Kumar said: “Saab, what is a Corona warrior? No one has ever visited me here or given me as much as a flower. All I know is that my work begins at seven in the morning and that there is no end time.”
Kumar told Gaon Connection said he hears the siren of the ambulance even in his sleep these days. He also said he faced discrimination when he went to buy provisions. “Shopkeers refused to serve me, because of the job I do,” he added.
Thirty-year-old Bhola Paswan, who lives in Jaipur, does a similar job. For the past five months, he hasn’t gone home, and lives in a makeshift tent at the crematorium he works in. He burns the PPE (personal protective equipment) kit at the end of the day. The outside world celebrates him as a ‘Corona Warrior’, but he faces discrimination and stigma every day, as people refuse to engage with him.
“During the lockdown, when I went to shops to buy my daily provisions, they refused to sell me goods, saying since I burn corpses, I could spread the virus,” he told Gaon Connection. Sometimes, when he had to desperately buy provisions, Paswan hid the nature of his job.
Since March, the term COVID warriors has become a part of everyday conversations. This refers to anyone involved in essential services, from doctors, nurses and paramedical staff to safai karamcharis, ambulance drivers, crematorium staff, bank employees, police and administrative officers. The union government and some state governments even announced a number of schemes to benefit them.
However, six months down the line, how are Corona warriors being treated? Mostly with apathy and social discrimination, found the Gaon Connection team that went around Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. The team spoke to numerous personnel working in the forefront of the pandemic — be it those taking a patient to the hospital, those caring for them inside, or those performing the last rites of the deceased.
Twenty-seven-year-old Rakesh Kumar now works as a cleaner at the Rajasthan University of Health Sciences (RUHS), the largest government-run COVID19 facility in Jaipur. He previously worked in a factory in Sitapura industrial area in Jaipur, but lost his job during the lockdown. “I took up this job despite strong opposition from my wife and family. During my twelve-hour daily duty, I do everything from cleaning the COVID-19 ward to helping safely pack up a deceased patient.”
Like Rakesh, many people have come to work in the hospital after losing their jobs during the lockdown. But, even this job does not assure job security. “Saab, we have been brought here by our contractor, who can kick any of us out on a whim. There is no security,” he told Gaon Connection.
Thirty-year-old Sapna, who works in a designated COVID-19 hospital in Jaipur, is terrified about her children’s safety. “I had no choice but to take up this job. I left my children with my parents to protect them from the disease. Online classes require the parent to help too, and I am unable to do that after my twelve-hour shift,” she told Gaon Connection.
Sameer Khan Mansuri, an ambulance driver, is just 28, but his voice is heavy with the experience of seeing first-hand how fragile life is. An ambulance driver at the Jaipur Municipal Corporation, he is clad in a full PPE kit, and ferries those who died of COVID-19 to the crematorium for the last rites. “When I leave home in the morning, it is difficult to predict how my day will be. Some days, I have even taken as many as 20 people on their last journey,” he said.
In the initial days of the pandemic, those who died of COVID-19 were cremated at the Adarsh Nagar Crematorium where the Jaipur Municipal Corporation had made provisions for the last rites of the unclaimed dead. However, last month, on September 8, the state government said that families could conduct the funeral. Following this, the workload on the crematorium staff of Adarsh Nagar Crematorium has decreased. There are people like 34-year-old Salim and 46-year-old Satyanarayan who have started to work at this crematorium as they lost their jobs during the lockdown. On being asked if he felt any fear cremating the dead, Satyanarayan, a former catering business employee, told Gaon Connection: “When the rich are unable to escape this disease, why should we be afraid? Even if a cure is found, I doubt if we will be able to access or afford it.” “People are reluctant to take up this job, but I need to survive, and so came here,” he added.
Meanwhile, at the Shastri Nagar Cemetery, 32-year-old Sabir Qureshi and 38-year-old Shahid Khan have been burying those who died of COVID-19. “We heard that in many places, those who died were being treated inhumanely during their last rites. We decided to stick to the guidelines and be ethical,” said Qureshi.
Khan’s take on life has changed during the pandemic, having seen both life and death at close quarters. This has been a surreal few months with the pandemic killing people, sometimes even those healthy, at will. But life must go on. And so, Khan requests all family members to plant a sapling near their loved one’s tomb. Where one perishes, another will thrive.