A health worker stands at the entrance of bulding door in Mumbai. AFP
As India hit another grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, crossing 2 million cases and more than 41,000 deaths, community health volunteers went on strike complaining they were ill-equipped to respond to the wave of infection in rural areas.
Even as India has maintained comparatively low mortality rates, the disease trajectory varies widely across the country with the burden shifting from cities with relatively robust health systems to rural areas, where resources are scarce or nonexistent.
The Health Ministry reported 62,538 cases in the past 24 hours, raising the nation’s total to 2,027,074. Also, 886 people died, for a total of 41,585.
The ministry said that recoveries were also growing. India has the third-highest caseload in the world after the United States and Brazil.
The caseload in the world's second-most populous country has quickly expanded since the government began lifting a monthslong lockdown hoping to jump-start a moribund economy. India is projecting negative economic growth in 2020.
Around 900,000 members of an all-female community health force began a two-day strike on Friday, protesting that they were being roped in to help with contact tracing, personal hygiene drives and in quarantine centers, but weren't given personal protective equipment or additional pay, according to organizer A.R. Sindhu.
The health workers, known as Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHA, which means ‘hope’ in several Indian languages, have been deployed in each village on behalf of the Health Ministry. Their work ranges from escorting children to immunization clinics to counseling women on childbirth.
But while their regular work hasn’t reduced, they are increasingly being involved by state governments in the fight against the pandemic, said Sindhu.
"But ASHA workers don’t have masks or PPEs or even sanitizers,” she said.
She added that although the work has increased and become more dangerous, their salaries remain static at roughly 2,000 rupees ($27) per month and the families of at least a dozen women who she said died from the virus didn't receive compensation from India's federal insurance for front-line health care workers because their deaths were not recorded as COVID-19 deaths.
Manisha Verma, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Like in much of the rest of the world, many Indians appeared to be counting on a therapeutic treatment or a vaccine to contain the spread of the disease.
India has launched two of the world's dozen and a half prospective vaccines into human trials, with vaccine-maker Zydus Cadila announcing it had completed phase 1 trials of its DNA-based vaccine on Thursday.
The country will be vital to global vaccination efforts, regardless of whether its own attempts work.
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