ROLE OF ASHAs IN KEEPING INDIA’S VILLAGES PROTECTED FROM CORONAVIRUS

Accredited Social Health Activists, ASHAs, are playing an indispensable role in rural outreach by educating village people on arresting the spread of the much-dreaded Coronavirus. Field reports from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, Varanasi indicate that ASHAs credited with juggling multiple roles have been deputed to spread awareness on prevention of Coronavirus in their areas. They are after all the backbone of primary healthcare in more than seven lakh villages of India.

On April 14, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an extension of the 21-day lockdown till May 3, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, advised in a COVID-19 related tweet that persons having symptoms may approach national/ state helpline centres or frontline workers such as ASHA workers and field workers. The tweet said that these workers have been oriented about the process to be followed and can help in early detection and facilitate proper treatment in hospitals.

Rekha Sharma, a forty-year-old ASHA worker says that ASHA workers in Varanasi have been asked to cover 25 to 30 houses a day in the assigned villages till the end of May. After lockdown, some workers working in Bengaluru, Delhi, Pune and other cities have come back to the villages because they did not have any work in lockdown. They have been asked to undergo tests for COVID- 19.”

The ASHAs are given performance-based incentives for promoting universal immunisation, referral and escort services for reproductive and child health and other healthcare programmes and construction of household toilets. They counsel women on birth preparedness, the importance of safe delivery, breast-feeding and complementary feeding, immunisation, contraception and prevention of common infections including Reproductive Tract Infections/ Sexually Transmitted Infections (RTIs and STIs) and care of the young child. From time to time, the ASHA workers have been deservingly honoured as well. In December 2019, Balvinder Kaur, an ASHA worker from Khosi Kalan village of sub-centre Koomkala of Ludhiana, Punjab was honoured with the National Universal Health Coverage Award by Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Dr Harsh Wardhan. She was honoured for her contribution to promoting facilities of Health and Wellness Centres in her block, Likewise, Jamuna Mani Singh was also felicitated by the Odisha government. “From the time we came to know that COVID-19 is going to pose a big threat to India, we took it upon ourselves to strengthen our rural outreach. Since we have been working in several states of India with special focus on many districts of Uttar Pradesh for a long time, we offered our services to government departments like education, health, women and child welfare departments.

We have made sure that all facts on COVID-19 that are being put out by the World Health Organisation and the Ministry of Health, are disseminated to the villages daily. As and when required, we are seeking the help of community-based organisations and other voluntary organisations.” Mr Pradhan explained that MAMTA is using the existing WhatsApp groups through which they normally function with senior government officers on several social welfare and development-oriented schemes, to spread awareness on COVID-19 as well. We are working in all eight blocks in the Prime Minister’s constituency. We have also asked ASHAs, frontline workers, Nehru Yuvak Kendra, NSS (National Service Scheme) and NCC (National Cadet Corps) volunteers to ask villagers to download Arogya Setu App (a mobile app developed by the Ministry of IT and Electronics to help citizens identify the risk of contracting COVID-19 infection). All government departments of Varanasi are already actively promoting Arogya Setu. To make it easy, we have shared the Arogya Setu link with all volunteers and social workers. Surely, the army of dedicated and friendly health activists in India’s villages is taking on the COVID- 19 challenge by empowering people with knowledge.