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ASHAs undervalued during COVID-19 crisis

India’s rural healthcare workers are vital in efforts to track COVID-19 cases in rural locations that are hard to reach. Despite this they remain an undervalued, and underpaid, segment of India’s healthcare workforce.

ASHAs are critical for grassroots health campaigns — for example, vaccination drives

Accredited social health activists (ASHAs) are Indian women who act as a liaison point between individuals in the community and the often underequipped, understaffed public health care system in rural areas. The Centre considers ASHAs voluntary community health providers and pays them a monthly amount of Rs 2,000.

During the pandemic, the Government is paying these workers an extra Rs 1,000 a month — around $13.20 a month or a little more than Rs 33 (43 cents) a day — in order to put their lives on the line more so than they otherwise would among India’s prior infectious disease caseload. “They are not considered workers and that is at the root of the problem,” said Somashekhar Yadagiri, the state secretary of All India United Trade Union Centre. “They dedicate their lives to community health, but their lives are not secure. The government is exploiting them.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, health workers – not only in India but across the globe – have put their lives on the line. Many have lost their lives to the virus. They form one of the most at-risk groups simply through exposure to the virus, often working on dedicated COVID-19 wards in hospitals or, as in the case of the ASHAs, performing at-home tests to identify transmission in the community.

Despite the risk these healthcare workers are placed under, little recognition or financial assistance is being passed their way. As is the case in many other nations, social media campaigns or public displays of appreciation are being made. However, there are only a few cases where these displays of appreciation have translated to financial compensation or pay rises.

To some, these public displays of appreciation are encouraging enough to maintain morale during their time on the frontlines in the war against COVID-19. However, for India’s ASHAs, their workload and role in this struggle is far from reflected in the financial provisions afforded to a voluntary worker.

Recent reports from experts, contrary to claims by the Centre, would indicate that community transmission is already occurring in India. This makes the role of ASHAs more vital than ever. For workers expected to assess thirty to forty houses before noon — with a chance of being exposed to COVID-19 upon each contact — these workers are underpaid, undervalued, and putting their lives at risk in the service of the community for a meagre salary.

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