On a summery day in March, aspirations were high, and emotions even higher. More than 5,000 attendees were expected for a gala opening ceremony to be held on March 8, for a refurbished women’s health centre run by JCMB in Bokaro, Jharkhand.
Everything was going well. And then their plans came tumbling down.
A labour department circular reached JCMB on March 7, warning all organisations not to hold any large gatherings on Mother’s Day. At that time, the fear of the Coronavirus was not so widespread (the first COVID-19-related death in Jharkhand was still many weeks away, and testing rates were very low).
Lindsay Barnes, the founder of JCMB, and her team decided to be proactive. Tents were pulled down; more than 100 women’s groups were informed frantically to not arrive the next day. Rumblings of discontent disappeared as people received the news of the total lockdown on March 24.
Then began the actual nightmare, as the almost-ready centre was left high and dry.
Local brickmaking stopped. Even the local teashop closed. Misinformation was rampant. Lindsay, who had returned from a meeting in Mumbai in February, was quarantined. Rumours spread like wildfire that the health centre was permanently closed. Communication lines were breaking down. Villagers had erected bamboo barriers, denying entry to the centre’s field
staff. With no transport, the number of women coming in for antenatal care and childbirth plummeted. Thankfully, births during the initial period were largely non-problematic.
By the second month, the situation changed. Women started visiting the centre again, but by then, they had missed check-ups for 2 to 3 months. They hadn’t undergone anomaly scans or taken medication for gestational diabetes, hypertension or anaemia. By the second and third weeks of May, the centre saw more neonatal and intra-partum deaths than they usually do in a whole year. That month alone, 4 babies died. Through all this, the centre decided steadfastly to stay open. Since most positive cases seemed to be asymptomatic, they decided to prepare as though everyone was a carrier.
They still had numerous challenges to address: there was no protective equipment in the market; the local surgical supplier’s shelves were empty – no masks, no gloves, no surgical spirit, no bleaching powder. All shops that had supplied linen, rubber sheets and stationery were closed. Support staff were harassed by the police and passes couldn’t be arranged, yet all hands were needed on deck.
Thankfully, with our support and assistance from other Trusts and NGOs, JCMB pulled through. First, they had to battle fake news and misinformation. They quickly designed simple black-and-white posters about safety precautions. When the posters stuck to the gates were blown away by the heavy winds and the rain, staff members patiently put up new ones. Cloth was needed for nurses’ uniforms, masks, linen and gowns, but cloth shops were closed. The centre convinced one shop to open and obtained cloth, only to be stopped by the police, who accused the ambulance driver of misusing the centre’s facilities to run a clothing business during the lockdown. Finally, JCMB got protective masks made in colourful, pretty prints. Each helper – called ‘swasthya sakhis’ – and every woman visitor was given two each.
The next challenge was obtaining PPE for the staff at the centre, health workers and village health guides, an effort supported by the Yumetta Foundation. After three tiring days and sleepless nights, JCMB managed to get the required permits to cross the length and breadth of Jharkhand. Their jeep set out in the early morning to bring back the sorely needed equipment.
Today, the centre is still open, but the number of people allowed inside has been drastically reduced. Each woman brings her chair with her from the outside and uses it as long as she is in the centre. When she leaves, the chair is disinfected and washed, and returned to the stacks in front of the building, where relatives patiently wait in the sun.
The centre currently conducts about 70 deliveries a month.