Frontline COVID Warriors: A Lesson From Odisha

Neha Saigal | Apr 10, 2020

Pallahara, a sub-division of centrally located Angul district in Odisha, is a three-hour drive from the district headquarters. While Angul is blessed with large forest areas, in Pallahara the
forest cover becomes dense and thick with bamboo and Sal trees. Within these thick forests reside some of the tribal groups of Odisha like the Juangs, who face challenges in accessing basic services like health and nutrition given their geographic remoteness. But the Odisha Government’s commitment and improved governance is gradually making way for a better life for these communities. The real champions of the Government’s efforts on the ground, are the frontline workers which include Anganwadi workers and their helpers, Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs and Auxilary Nurse Midwifes or ANMs. Despite these challenging times with the Covid 19 pandemic on the rise, they have been working effortlessly in their communities.

Take Sati Kumari Behera, a resident of Pallahara and a mother of a child just over a year old. Under the Govt’s ICDS scheme Sati is eligible for Take Home Ration for her son which includes 12 eggs, 2.45 kg chatua and 1.5 kg dry ration to supplement her child’s nutrition. In a video interview, she confirms that she received the THR on April 1 at her doorstep delivered by the Anganwadi didi, who arrived wearing a mask. Maintaining the prescribed social distance of six feet, she also briefed Sati on the importance of handwashing, especially before feeding her son, and other practices like social distancing.

Sati’s son receiving his nutrition supplement on time is thanks to a march 23 order issued by the Odisha government’s Department of Women and Child Development, which states that frontline staff should ensure home delivery of take-home rations and hot cooked meal ingredients for the entire month on April 1. This is particularly crucial for women like Sati, who live in remote tribal hamlets and depend on the government for supplementary nutrition. It is important that everyone, especially vulnerable populations get proper nutrition during these times and otherwise, as it reduces their risk to infectious disease and helps maintain a strong immune system.

State Governments around the country have issued various orders highlighting measures to mitigate the risks by providing extra food ration or daily wages to the poorest. But given the stress on the already weak governance in several areas, it is hard to determine whether these services will reach the most in need unless there is awareness and participation at community level.

The network of frontline workers across the Health and ICDS is an asset as they can reach the last household with vital services, messages and facilitate community participation. Sati’s case in Pallahara is not unique as several stories are emerging of AWWs and ASHAs going door to door in Angul providing women with their entitlements as well as counselling on handwashing, social distancing and wearing a mask. The important role that these frontline staff play in our communities, despite the risk of the growing pandemic, needs recognition and incentive. India should celebrate the frontline staff at the grassroots, women who tirelessly work to provide better health and nutrition in some of the most hard to reach areas. We should recognise that frontline staff can become agents of change during these times, by spreading the right message not only about nutrition but also about staying safe during the times of Corona.

(The author works on nutrition at IPE Global. Views expressed are personal)