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'108' ambulance drivers dodge coronavirus every step of the way

Extra mile sans extra pay
Last Updated : 06 July 2020, 06:16 IST

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Avinash (name changed), 34, is having his dinner when he gets an emergency call. He does not finish his meal, for he knows any delay could cost a person’s life. As a ‘108’ ambulance driver, he is always on his toes, but this time there is a lingering fear of contracting the deadly novel coronavirus.

He dons the protective gear and rushes to ferry the patient to a Covid-19 designated hospital in Bengaluru. After transporting the patient, he breathes a sigh of relief, not just because he safely dropped the patient but also because he can now remove the suffocating protective gown.

After completing his 12-hour-long shift (his workload is increasing with the number of cases), he takes a bath in the hospital premises and gets back into the ambulance, for this is where he will spend the night.

Going back home may prove risky for his family. With a meagre salary of Rs 11,000, he cannot afford to rent a separate room. And he is not sure if he will get one as he has witnessed the stigma associated with Covid-19.

The virus has not just affected his psyche, but his finances too. Since the outbreak of the virus in the country, he claims that he is not receiving salary on time and is not being paid for working overtime, around 80 extra hours every month.

However, he has not raised the issue, for he fears losing his job or being transferred with immediate effect. He also knows everyone is struggling.

“Most of us are managing with the one personal protective equipment (PPE) kit we got in March. We have to wait for days to get even an N95 face mask. We hope that the government addresses these issues on priority,” says Sridhar R, president of ‘108’ ambulance drivers’ union.

"I have written to the Additional Director of Karnataka State Drugs Logistics and Warehousing Society to supply PPEs. I have told health officers to procure PPEs a week in advance and have them stationed at appropriate points from where the ambulance drivers can collect them. We have also made arrangements for the proper disposal of used PPEs," says Randeep D, Special Commissioner, BBMP.

"Sanitisation of the ambulance is the responsibility of the operators. We have instructed that the drivers should be given accommodation within the zones in which they operate," says Randeep.

Apart from the lack of enough protective equipment, sanitisation and fumigation facilities, the drivers claim they haven’t been given any special training to handle Covid-19 cases either.

"Every ambulance operator is trained to handle communicable diseases be it Covid-19 or any other disease. Also there is adequate awareness regarding this disease now. In case any operator requests for any training we can facilitate it. I haven't received such feedback yet," says Randeep.

Handling patients is one thing, dealing with their relatives is another. The drivers have been instructed to ferry patients to only designated hospitals and this becomes a bone of contention with the patient’s relatives, sometimes.

On some occasions, they have to go to multiple hospitals before the patient gets admission. This only adds to the chaos.

“We work in a stressed environment. Some ambulance drivers are under quarantine. But testing is done only for those with symptoms. This increases the risk,” says Paramashiva, vice president of the drivers’ union.

As a precaution, most of the drivers have sent their families to their native places.

“The most difficult part is asking our own children to stay away from us. We only find solace in the fact that we help save people’s lives,” Paramashiva says.

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Published 05 July 2020, 16:58 IST

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