Why the specific focus on public health workers?
“For some years now, I’ve been studying the devaluation of women’s work and the political economic processes this involves. The extremely valuable contribution of women in state welfare work in India has not been recognized nor does it get the dignity that it deserves, whereas these workers play an important part in what we call local development. They work very closely with local people and also collect valuable information from local communities. People that are in powerful positions really don’t know much about anything going on locally, unless for these women workers.”
How are you performing your research?
“The current research is a pilot study, the main focus at the moment is on gathering available information about these workers in whatever limited ways during the covid times. Before the new wave hit the country, two graduate students had been helping me to collect stories and experiences of health workers mostly through phone conversations. India is a big country with over 1.4 billion people living in different states, with every state having their own experience with the pandemic. I’m trying to focus on two locations which have extremely different stories to tell, namely Delhi and Kerala, which is the state that I’m from.”
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So, besides the research objective, there is also a personal motivation?
“Definitely, yes. I don’t separate my academic work from my own social-political interest. For that reason, I want to make a clear link between the two.”
Currently, there is a second wave hitting India. How is that influencing your research?
“At the moment, it is not a good time to talk about any research at all. The health workers are helping whoever they can survive and talking about research is not their priority. I’m watching in horror what is happening. It’s a total failure of the system. We just witness and when the time comes, we will talk to the health workers. We already knew the vulnerability of the system, but we were hoping that it wouldn’t come to this situation.”
When talking to the health workers, what are the issues that they mention?
“The burden on the workers is insane. If you have a state that is falling apart with a government that is unable to perform, the workers are going to take over in order to save lives. It is like a warzone. These workers are putting themselves out there and they’re taking the risk that they or their family could fall ill. They feel the responsibility to take care of their community, despite the absence of a proper planned system by the government. They feel like the government is in denial and is failing completely to address the situation, along with the elites who can actually escape the country or can protect themselves.”
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Why are these workers still putting themselves out there, if the government fails to protect them?
“That is broadly because in a country like India, where more than 65 percent live in rural areas, people still believe in a collective community life and feel responsible for each other. Many of these women workers have the experience of living and working like that, so they still follow it. It’s amazing that these women workers are taking care of their community, however it’s very important that it should not be romanticized. These women are forced to overwork in extremely vulnerable working conditions because there is a lack of a proper and functional system in place in many parts of the country.”
What are your personal emotions when you are doing your research?
“I do feel angry a lot. People in India are feeling hopeless and that is a feeling that I share. People in power have disappeared in the crisis and have let it to the public health workers to handle it. It makes us feel helpless. India is not a small country like the Netherlands, one state in India can have more people than what we have here. In that big number, a few people helping out is not going to change things.”
What are you hoping to achieve with your results?
“There is a combined goal. Of course, I want to recognize the contribution of the workers and the high price they are paying. At the same time, I want the state to feel responsible, understand their own failure, and come back with a better strategy. India is not a poor country, so it is unnecessary that so many lives are lost. It is not like Covid has been here since last month. We have been going through a pandemic for more than a year, what was the Indian government doing? The government needs to get their act together, so that more unnecessary deaths can be avoided.”