Moharram Ali, who works as sanitation worker in a village in Shrawasti district, first got to know about COVID-19 by watching television news and reading a newspaper in January 2020. He said, “Initially I thought that it was a foreign disease and that it will not come in our country, but gradually the virus started affecting people in our country as well... Even after cases started increasing in India, we thought that they would remain concentrated in big cities.”
But a letter from the district office stating that the sanitation department and its workers had to conduct awareness drives in the district and motivate people on preventive measures convinced him that the corona virus was coming closer. “It was the first time I felt like the peril was increasing and our cities and villages were equally under threat,” he said.
When migrant labourers started coming back to villages, Moharram was deployed to one of the centres set up for the labourers. His primary duty was to take care of the Centre and ensure its overall cleanliness.
To minimise risks of contamination, the labourers had to live in quarantine for 14 days before they could enter the village, as per government regulations. It was then that Moharram got really scared. He knew he was going to be on the frontline. He knew he would have to interact and be in the same vicinity with people who were at high risk of having the disease.
“I have three small children at home, and I was worried about potential risk of contamination given the nature of the virus,” he remarks. “I knew I was at risk, but I had to ensure the safety of my children.”
After assessing the situation, he decided that he would live outside his home until he had to go back to the quarantine centre. Initially, it was very difficult for him to stay away from home, but he says, “Now my habits are slowly changing, and I know this is best for my family.”
“Best for my family” means a temporary shelter outside his village – and the routine that goes along with it. Most days his routine consists only of going to the quarantine centre and then coming back to his temporary shelter. Moharram has not been to his house since March. He misses his children a lot. “Sometimes I go near my home and see my children from a distance,” he says, “but I do not allow them to come closer to me.”
He expresses gratitude for the cooperation, support, and direction he has received from the District Coordinator (SBM-G) and Vivek Awasthi of the Aga Khan Foundation. “They trained me on basic preventive practices, like the correct steps of hand washing with soap, the importance of physical distancing, management of waste,” he says. “Basic, personal protective equipment like sanitisers, masks, etc., were provided by our officials to protect us, so that we remain safe.”
As he has adjusted to the situation, his family – and particularly his children – have also become more understanding. Although he worried when he started working at the quarantine centre, he began to look at his appointment as an opportunity to do some good work for the villagers and his community – especially to make people aware of the importance of cleanliness during these times. He also feels proud of his work and the contribution he is making to society.
He credits UNICEF for organising training through a YouTube webinar on COVID-19 specifically for Shrawasti district (he attended this training because he did not have an email). In this training, the UNICEF team made him aware of all the preventive aspects of the pandemic, dos and don’ts, handwashing with soap, preparing disinfectant, and how key messages generate awareness. “The training provided by UNICEF has really helped and I am applying it in my day to day job,” Moharram says. “I know that I have a huge responsibility as a member of the district resource group towards ensuring the safety of people. I do my work with full commitment and will keep doing it.”
That full commitment is self-evident. All the migrant labourers who stay in the quarantine centre managed by Moharram Ali now know the six steps of handwashing. He still regularly demonstrates handwashing and asks the labourers to wash their hands at regular intervals.
He has a message for those who are struggling with COVID-19. “Get up and fight. With patience, we will win this battle,” he says. “We can win the war against COVID-19 by adopting cleanliness and following physical distancing. As a responsible citizen and responsible employee of my country, I am fighting for our country, our districts, our families – and I will continue to fight.”
He hopes that, soon, all of this will end and that things will go back to normal. Most importantly, he would like to be able to go home.