In Chennai’s Slums, Youngsters Turn to ‘COVID Duty’ for Survival

·5 min read

For Jeevitha M, a resident of a slum in Tamil Nadu’s Chennai, working as Chennai Corporation’s fever surveyor or sector worker has become ‘the only means of survival’ during the pandemic. Jeevitha, a 21-year-old college student, had to take up the job after both her parents lost their jobs following the countrywide lockdown that was imposed in 2020.

"“My parents are aged. They won’t be able to handle this work, as it is physically demanding. Also, I didn’t want them to risk their lives by going out, especially when the virus was all around.”" - Jeevitha M told The Quint.

In addition, the family had to pay her college fees and the school fees of two of her brothers.

Risking their lives like Jeevitha, in Chennai, thousands of college students have taken up COVID care jobs to manage a living. Besides, several graduates, teachers, auto drivers, domestic helpers, housewives, and others who had lost their jobs since 2020 are also working as fever surveyors now.

Two health volunteers take stalk of the day’s programme in Chennai.
Two health volunteers take stalk of the day’s programme in Chennai.

The Risk They Take

Now, a typical day starts for Jeevitha at around 7.30 am. After finishing the morning meeting with district health officials, she starts vising the houses in ‘her area’ donning a double mask, gloves and shoes. She finishes the work at around 2.30 pm.

A health volunteer takes oxygen saturation reading.
A health volunteer takes oxygen saturation reading.

Since late April 2020, every day Jeevitha has been visiting around 150 houses to check residents for coronavirus symptoms including fever, cough, cold, and breathlessness. If a resident is found to have the symptoms, Jeevitha says, she would immediately arrange COVID test for them.

The purpose of fever surveying is to identify virus cases as early as possible and prevent the infection from spreading.

“During my daily work, besides checking residents for virus symptoms, I also check the temperature and oxygen saturation of home-quarantined COVID patients. However, while meeting them, I take all precautions to prevent virus spread, she says and adds, “Rs 12,000 that I get out of doing this work is the only means of survival now.”

Massive Job Crisis

Mohammed Rashik, another college student in his 20s also had to take up the job of a fever surveyor after the coronavirus struck.

"“My father used to be a van driver taking ‘school savaris’. However, after the lockdown in 2020, all schools were shut. And so, my father lost his job. My mother is a house wife.”" - Mohammed Rashik, Chennai resident

Mohammed Rashik, a surveyor, performs his daily task.
Mohammed Rashik, a surveyor, performs his daily task.

Hence, the B. Com (Corporate Secretary) final year student immediately took up fever surveying to support his family. “Initially, I was a little apprehensive of doing this job, but later when I started working, I got interested in it as we were helping people overcome their illnesses”.

Sripathy D, a 28-year-old resident of Srinivasapuram, a slum in Chennai was working at an NGO before the pandemic struck.

"“When the schools closed after lockdown, the NGO asked us to leave and re-join only when the schools re-opened.”" - Sripathy D, Chennai resident

COVID surveyors on the job.
COVID surveyors on the job.

Even though the fever surveyor job pays Sripathy less than half of what he used to earn earlier and requires him to deal with dozens of virus cases on a daily basis, he was “forced” to take the job as he had to take care of his mother, wife and child.

“Also, no other organisation or company was recruiting people, after lockdown.”

Currently, Chennai Corporation employs close to 15,000 such surveyors. Surveyors are also being employed across Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, this year, when the state started the vaccination process, all fever surveyors were vaccinated on priority, as they are frontline workers.

No Job Security

While the job of a fever-surveyor is fetching them enough money to run their families, the surveyors are constantly living in fear of losing the job.

"“Many a time, especially if we are allotted to work in a residential area, where middle class or upper middle-class people live, most residents do not even allow us to enter their house, saying we are the source of infection.”" - Sripathy D, Chennai resident

COVID surveyors compare notes.
COVID surveyors compare notes.

Often, people visit private hospitals to get tested as they want to avoid the local surveyors. “If they turn positive, the information comes to the corporation database. When this happens, our higher officials hold us responsible for not surveying the area properly.” A couple of the surveyors have also been dismissed from work because of some minor mistakes they committed, Sripathy said.

Want Chennai Corporation to Treat Them Well

The surveyors say that the work is also taking a toll on their physical and mental health. “There are many who do not cooperate. They scold us using filthy words. The patients’ relatives pick up fights with us. Several times, they even physically assault us,” a surveyor said.

A COVID surveyor makes a public service announcement.
A COVID surveyor makes a public service announcement.

There are times when they have to clear misconceptions about the job they do. “Hence, it will be of great help if the Corporation creates awareness about the work of fever surveyors through advertisements in TV and social media,” a surveyor added.

The surveyors also want their jobs in the corporation to be regularised.

Rashik says, “As we have worked for close to two years now, it will be beneficial for us if the Chennai corporation gives us the first preference when there is an appropriate job opening”.

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