As the COVID-19 battle rages on, fever surveillance workers return to Chennai neighbourhoods

“Ellarum unga veetila nalla irukangala. (Is everyone in your home doing fine?)"

J. Usha and M. Devi would repeat this greeting as they hopped from door to door, at TNHB quarters near Thirumangalam. After a gap of around two months, this duo is back, so is the line.

Besides this greeting, the two fever surveillance workers deployed by Greater Chennai Corporation are equipped with a non-touch thermometer for fever screening and a pulse oximetre.

Last year, when the pandemic began, Usha and Devi were among the 12,000 surveillance workers engaged across all divisions to conduct door-to-door survey for COVID-19 symptoms.

They worked until the end of January 2021 and are employed once again for this work, due to galloping Coronavirus cases. Recently, Meghanath Reddy, deputy commissioner, GCC, tweeted, “Fever surveillance workers and FOCUS volunteers are Chennai Corporation’s foot soldiers. These men and women with their selfless service have become our backbone in stemming the spread of COVID. The city is proud of them.”

Early start

In some zones, fever surveillance workers start their work as early as 7 a.m., when they are briefed by the sanitary inspector and zonal level officials, following which they head into their areas. Some are assigned a new locality every month.

Last year, GCC paid each worker ₹500 a day, and set an average target of 150 to 200 houses a day. They should record the data by 2 p.m.

Usha and Devi are glad about being assigned the same community where they worked for 10 months, as a majority of the people in the housing society know them well and would open up about any nagging doubts about COVID-19. The quarters has over 600 flats in the quarters and between then, the two share the work.

Association members, security personnel and some residents have their numbers saved with them.

“Sometimes it is they who call us and ask us to check on the whereabouts of a family,” says Devi, a resident of Mogappair. She says in the last few weeks they would have referred at least 18 people to go for COVID test based on the symptoms they exhibited.

Field challenges

Being a ‘temporary worker’ is far from easy, as some families do not like to be disturbed regularly and some bar them from coming into their area.

V. Shankar, who has worked as a fever surveillance staff at Semmencherry, says initially people viewed them with fear and suspicion and it took some doing to change that perception.

“I worked for seven months and every two months I was given a new area. In some places, people are not willing to divulge details,” says Shankar, who worked as a driver before taking up this job. Families under quarantine are required to get details of places they visited and people they interacted with.

On an average, they spend 10 to 15 minutes collecting details and clarifying doubts.

“I have also come across a few cases where people have got into an argument as they did not get a negative report from the Corporation and we become the subject,” says Shankar.

Usha and Devi say they avoid taking the escalator and sanitise their hands after covering every floor.

“We should never be the carriers of the virus and we take utmost precaution,” says Usha, who worked as a front office staff with an insurance company before the office shut shop due to COVID-19.

When asked about the nagging fear that they could contract the virus, these workers admit to feeling it in the back of their mind. It comes to the fore when they have to interact with people whose family members have tested positive.

“I have two young children and a elderly mother-in-law at home, so I am extra cautious. I inhale steam every day after reaching home and also have an immunity-boosting kashyam once a week. Sometimes, we do a COVID-19 test once in two weeks to make sure we are safe before stepping out,” says Usha.

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