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India's Corona front workers are on strike at the moment the country is overwhelmed by a wave of infections
Around one million Indian women measure a fever and provide information about the virus. Now they are on strike for more wages and better working conditions.
A steadily growing wave of corona cases is rolling across India and has made the country the global leader in the number of new infections registered every day. In the past few days, the authorities counted over 60,000 new cases of Covid-19. The total number of infections has doubled in just three weeks, there are now more than two and a half million people. Around 50,000 Indians have died of Covid-19 so far.
The hospitals and crematoriums in the country are barely able to cope with the pandemic and are improvising with the help of aid organizations. Tracking down infection clusters and consistently isolating contact persons is an overwhelming task given the sheer size of the country with 1.4 billion inhabitants.
So far, around one million Indian women have been of great importance, as specially trained social workers who watch over the health of around 1,000 people each. These Accredited Social Health Activists - the acronym “Asha” means “hope” in Sanskrit - were at the forefront of the fight against the virus. They moved from house to house in villages and towns, explaining the routes of infection, measuring fever and tracking down who had come into contact with those infected.
But on August 7th, India's Ashas went on a strike that is still going on. The women protest against their poor pay, the lack of protective clothing and the fact that some of them have been physically attacked: ill-informed people accuse them of bringing the virus into their homes or of spying on them.
Day laborers carried the virus into the provinces
The Asha strike could worsen the epidemiological situation in India even more. It is not surprising that the country has high numbers of infections. Contagion is difficult to avoid with a population that is densely packed both in rural areas and in crowded cities.
However, many experts say India's initial response to Covid also did something to push the numbers up. The strict lockdown that Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprisingly imposed at the end of March deprived the livelihood of millions of day laborers overnight. Many of the suddenly destitute men and women who until then had found a livelihood in the cities had no choice but to make their way to their villages, some thousands of kilometers away. Some unwillingly carried the virus to the furthest corners of the subcontinent, where it is now rampant.
This dynamic can be read off from the latest case numbers. While the large metropolises such as Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai are now reporting falling numbers, they are skyrocketing in the provinces from which migrant workers traditionally come.
An investigation attracted attention among experts in July, which found that in some areas of Mumbai, apparently over half the population has already had Corona. In the Dharavi slum, which is home to around one million people, a government study found that 57 percent of the results were positive. In Delhi, 23 percent of the test subjects had antibodies against the virus.
However, epidemiologists warn that it is too early to rejoice that parts of India may soon have herd immunity to Covid-19. The tests may have shown falsely positive results, Om Shrivastav, the head of an infectious disease center in Mumbai, told CNN. In addition, too little is known about the new virus to draw conclusions about the long-lasting immunity.
Ashas want a raise
The Ashas strike, which is staggered for a few days according to the provinces, is likely to drag on. The women, who earn 2000 to 4000 rupees (between 25 and 50 francs) per month depending on the member state, are demanding a significant increase in salary to 10,000 rupees and equality with other professions in medicine, including health and death insurance. The Ashas are also calling for the government to invest six percent of the gross national product in health care in the future. India invests only around two percent of its gross national product in public health, in Switzerland it is around 12 percent.
The government makes no move to respond to women's demands. On Tuesday, police in Delhi opened an investigation into 100 women who demonstrated in the city center in the pink uniform of health workers. The protest violated the ban on meetings due to the corona risk.
The Asha movement was originally introduced by the then government in 2005 as a voluntary movement. Today women are a cornerstone of the health system. With the help of the Ashas, child mortality was significantly reduced. The workers bear the brunt of vaccination campaigns trying to contain the tuberculosis epidemic in the country. These fields of work are also affected by the strike.
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