An army of 600,000 virus-hunting women health workers struck in India last week.
The workers, called Ashas or Accredited Social Health Activists, are playing a vital role in tracking and tracing people with coronavirus.
In the past they have been credited with helping eradicate polio and reducing the number of women who die in childbirth.
But the fight against coronavirus has pushed the all-female force to breaking point.
“[We’re] working from 7am to 5pm and we only get 2,000 rupees (£20) a month—and no masks or sanitiser,” said Sulochana Rajendra Sabde, an Asha in Maharashtra.
Sabde is yet to be paid the extra 2,000 rupees a month promised by the state government for virus-related work.
“We have to maintain so many documents for a measly sum which is also never on time,” she said. “The government has no place for us in its heart.”
Strikers are demanding better pay—and to be paid on time. They also want their legal status enshrined so they earn at least a guaranteed minimum wage.
Many Ashas report having little or no protective equipment, despite working in slums where the virus is spreading fast.
India already has the third highest number of infections in the world. The number of cases grew extremely rapidly from a relatively low level in the spring.
A record daily rise in infections on Friday of last week took the total number of confirmed cases to over two million. The rise came on the same day as the workers began their two-day strike.
Asha Saira Anwar Sheikh was given masks and gloves but no protective wear. She died of Covid-19 in June, leaving behind her husband and four children.
As many as 20 Ashas have died in the outbreak. “She was the literate one among the two of us,” said her husband Anwar.
“She gave 11 years of her life to this work and there’s been no help from the government.”
Anwar has been unable to claim the insurance promised to Ashas’ families by Narendra Modi’s hard right government.
Many of India’s poorest live in fear of being diagnosed with the virus.
They know their chances of returning from government virus recovery camps are slim.
That puts Ashas in even greater danger.
If they alert officials to someone with the signs of infection, they can be set upon and beaten.
But these are scant concerns for India’s middle classes and the celebrity-obsessed media.
The hot news on all channels this week was that Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan appears to have recovered from coronavirus and is out of hospital.
The news will surely come as a relief to those risking their lives at the sharp end of public health in one of the most infected countries in the world.
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