Gangtok, May 28:

“I feel like I haven’t had such an impact on my mental health because I don’t have the time to think, says Dr Nikhel Topden Bhutia, Medical Officer at the Rangpo Check post. “By the time I return home I’m very tired so I sleep, but not getting to meet my family has put a strain.”

Ever since Sikkim reported its first positive case of the novel coronavirus, the general public has been in a frenzy, wondering if they’re next in line of infection. They tweet, post and share from the confines of their home, some even having the privilege of being able to earn during the lockdown via ‘work from home’. 

Dr Nikhel is one of the handful who is situated on the borders, tirelessly working to protect the state with little to no time for themselves; he and his team of 13 comprising of dental surgeons, MPHW, data entering operators and others, are in daily, direct contact with the returnees to the state. Their team is located at the Rangpo Checkpost and unlike the screening camps, check posts do have glass barricades.

While every nation affected by the novel coronavirus researches to find a cure or vaccine, these people at the borders and hospitals, previously taken for granted, have been working tirelessly in the dire reality of being exposed to the virus. Healthcare workers, law and order authority, safai karamcharis, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), Anganwadi workers among others, are all frontline workers in India, who continue to work as the viral disease claims life after life. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs’ advised States and UTs to bring back their stranded citizens on April 29, and accordingly, the Sikkim Government has been carrying out evacuation operations of stranded citizens from May 5, with the first batch of returnees being brought on the same day. 

Screening camps are set up at Rangpo and Melli, staffed with Chief Medical Officers (CMOS), staff nurses, District Surveillance Officers who have gathered to screen Sikkimese returnees, and law and order authority for crowd control. Regardless of the rise in temperature, the sample collection team and those who have to stay in close proximity to the travellers, have to don full PPE, which is reportedly uncomfortable and hot.

Dr Nikhel informs that they work 24 hours, in five shifts with 2 people at a time. When asked how different life has been since the coronavirus pandemic, he replies with a laugh, saying of course, it’s been different. Since they are in direct contact with the returnees, they cannot mingle in society. They are restricting themselves from meeting their families, in order to prevent and protect them from the virus.

He is currently staying at the Doctor’s Quarters in Rangpo to avoid going home. “Other people in my team who have been commuting have been practising complete isolation from their families, staying at different areas of the house and eating food through casseroles. While there are challenges with so many returning home, the most difficult thing is having to turn down people from entering the state during the lockdown period, since we were answerable to them, while some reactions were anger while some understood. We have healthcare workers who haven’t taken days off and some even are on the brink of returning so it’s wonderful that they are still working despite their fears.”

On asking if he feels that the administration has done enough, he says, “The lockdown should have been implemented in reversal, like how right now there are many relaxations, the relaxations should have been given at the onset of the lockdown and now since Sikkim has a positive case the lockdown regulations should be very stringent. Besides that, I believe that the State Government has done an amazing job of protecting Sikkim for so long”. He does suggest that inter-district movement be strict. 

When we asked if this has had an impact on their mental health he replied with, “Some people on my team sometimes get scared which is natural and say they want to leave, but I counsel them saying that the Department has ensured our safety by giving us protective gears”.

Yet it is not only the hospital authorities who are risking their lives and giving up their time. SDM Rangpo, Prem Kamal Rai explains from the perspective of a law and order authority. He says that since the coronavirus pandemic, all the focus has shifted to the virus, and all office work has been halted. 

On a more personal note, he says, it has been a big challenge with both personal and professional changes, since they are now more playing the role of guardians of the state. While he feels fortunate to be able to do his duty towards the state, he makes it clear it has been terrifying to go to work even though the State government and the Land Revenue and Disaster Management Department has poured in all resources.

“No one is a superman or a superwoman who are immune to such viruses, I have to be honest, we all feel scared I’m terms of our safety and family. The administration has done more than enough to combat given the resources and infrastructure we have. Eventually, we’ll learn to live amid the virus as well, or at least a vaccine is found. For now, as a government representative I know it’s the age of social media and everybody is well aware of the dos and don’ts, I would like to appeal to the public to maintain patience because that is all we can do in this adversity. Please be patient and listen to the Government and the Administration since it’s for our benefit, patience and hygiene right now is the way to go”

The pandemic has brought many face to face with their privilege. It is easy to call these doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, police officers as “frontline warriors”, or clap for their services. Hailing them as ‘heroes’ and ‘guardians’ deflects from the fact that these are real people, with families, friends and lives of their own. 

It is true, they are the epitome of true courage and sacrifice but they fear for their own lives too. Yet, it is part and parcel of their job and that is exactly what they are doing. So the next time a citizen steps into their lives, as a patient, friend or returnee, it is important to acknowledge their time under the hot sun, be polite, thank them for doing their jobs but it is equally important to remember that the guidelines for those at home is easy – simply put precaution over cure, as a symbol of gratitude, which would ultimately have more meaning than an appreciation post. 

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