“Somebody had to do it”, said Alexander Fedotov who was part of the largest ever response team trying to contain radiation after the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the April of 1986. And this is what I reply to everyone who asks me why I spent a week on the Coronavirus frontline. Named ‘liquidators’ meaning ‘to eliminate something that causes problems’, these response teams contained the deadly radiation leak which threatened the very existence of mankind. Volunteering with the efforts of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to screen patients made me feel like a ‘liquidator of Corona’.
As the wave of Coronavirus swept our nation, the need to establish a response team to aid the authorities in testing was felt by many. Already on the ground zero with its various Seva activities, RSS fashioned the first ‘Liquidators of Corona’ to answer the need. First pilot ran through the at-risk settlements in Pune, screening 1,02,450 patients with the help of 365 doctors & 1016 Swayamsevaks. Work expanded to Mumbai as Parle west became the headquarters for the Mumbai effort. Coordinating six batches till today, Mumbai effort has expanded into three more branches headquartered in Marol, Malad and Mulund. Working with local authorities such as BMC and Health Ministry, teams of 500 liquidators have screened over 70,000 patients in Mumbai’s various containment zones and red zones.
Unlike the Liquidators of Chernobyl, many of whom were ordered by the government to join the cleanup effort, we are all volunteers. Hailing from diverse backgrounds, such as teachers, accountants, medical students, engineers, lawyers, photographers and whatnot, ready to take on the challenge of the uncomfortable weather, the claustrophobic gear, the crammed surroundings and mammoth number of patients. When mega screening campaign of Dharavi on the first Sunday of the Junewas announced, many like me volunteered. We had already completed our field work, but we came out of quarantine and delayed our tests to help out in screening largest slum in Asia.
Every batch receives a thorough orientation, teaching us about how to don and doff the PPE, what are we supposed to do once in the field. But no amount of preparation can keep one calm for when you are donning the battle gear known as PPE for the first time. Imagine, you rub a dab of sanitizer on your hand, now come the gloves, rubbery and sticky followed by foot covers rising shin high. Then another round of sanitizer on hands, followed by putting on the overall hooded jumpsuit zipped and secured with belts. Sanitizing our hands again we pull our sleeves down to put on another pair of gloves making sure our wrists are not exposed. Now comes the outer disposable mask atop the N95 we wore at all times. Put up your glasses, pull up your hoody making sure your forehead is covered then topping it off with the face shield.
And when armed with thermal gun, Pulse-Oxygen meter, sanitizer spray and charts for documentations, how can one not feel like a soldier ready to face the enemy. The layering of the masks and face shield meant scuffing wounds behind our ears, which paired with hot and humid conditions-built condensation on our specs and face shields limiting our visibility with bonus of irritation. But the soldier spirit inspired us to fashion makeshift solutions like applying coconut oil behind our ears to avoid scuffing and wearing specs loose and a centimetre down on the nose to avoid condensation.
Our day used to start early, getting up, having preventive medicine like arsenic album, some prayers followed by Pranayama gets things moving. Having breakfast in our rooms, everyone starts getting ready for the field. Hydration is the key to perform because as soon as you put on the PPE, a reverse countdown of five hours begins as having even a drop of water is impossible till out of the PPE, sanitized and bathed at the end of the shift. Everyone assembles in preparation area sitting together, each 3 feet apart for the morning briefing. Then we are updated on the target locality, potential difficulties and special precautions. This planning in advance and planning in detail is the secret of our efficiency. As the briefing concludes, everyone races to don the PPE following its procedure to the t, while helping and looking after teammates to be ready. The equipment to be carried in the field are inspected, restocked and then the we march towards the buses.
Once on the field, the teams of three-consisting two volunteers and one medico – reach the table and immediately start the screening as the local volunteers go door to door to bring the patients in a queue. One volunteer checks temperature and Blood oxygenation levels while another takes it down along with patients contact details and general medical history. Doctors look for symptoms and counsel the patients about COVID19 guidelines. Looking for symptoms, identifying high risk individuals, referring symptomatic suspects to authorities and documenting every patient, the liquidators usually do 4-5 hour shifts each day.
The process of screening for Coronavirus which does not involve taking samples or testing patients is a double-edged sword. In the absence of abundant testing, screening ‘Eliminates’ patients form the suspect pool and maps those at high risk helping authorities in their testing efforts. The screening also serves as a tool of awareness which is far necessary in the times of hysteria and misinformation surrounding the pandemic. Simple reiteration of guidelines by a doctor works miracle to de-stigmatize patients. And I think that is the biggest success of this campaign. Being advised about pandemic guidelines by a human being instead of a blaring faceless loudspeaker helps ease the fear of the Coronavirus pandemic and believe me half the battle is won there. People become more open, approachable, honest in discussing their symptoms and readily accept help.
I have seen a man fearful of being taken away into quarantine, bring his whole family for screening once his doubts were cleared by our ever-enthusiastic medico. In the era of mass confusion and hysteria, we served as a bridge between the authorities and patients. Screening over 24000 households, over 70,000 patients and identifying 924 suspects, I feel humbled and proud to have gotten the opportunity to serve my nation in the past week. Perfecting what Fedotov said with the ‘first person singular approach’ of an ABVP activist, somebody had to do it, then why not me?