In July last year, when two villagers tested positive in Maangaon village from the Pune district of Maharashtra, Suman Dhebe, a health worker, realised that they could spread the disease. So she set out on a mission to find them.
Suman has been a part of the state government's Maajhe Kutumb Maajhi Javabdari (My family, my responsibility) campaign, which ensures door-to-door screening campaign. The project aimed to trace, identify and prevent potential infections. The Asha worker has been among Maharashtra's 70,000 healthcare workers who saved numerous lives with their utmost zeal and dedication.
When the villagers tested positive, she had to walk 10 hours daily for days to trace contacts in the nearby villages. When Shirkoli village reported two cases during the first wave, she had to step in the rain for hours and cross several streams to screen more than 200 villagers in the surrounding hills, The Times of India reported. But Suman says the distance was not an issue for her as the workers are used to cover such long distances on a daily basis.
At that time, Suman's enthusiasm and integrity was noticed by the Zila Parishad officials who lauded her efforts. Her hard work ensured that all five villages nearby, with about 1000 people, remained Covid free throughout the second wave.
The 42-year-old says that she herself was aware of the Covid-19 disease during a training session for ASHA's last March. "That was also the first time we saw a bottle of hand sanitiser. We were told it's a new disease and asked to check for fever, cough and weakness. We were given gloves, masks and some sanitiser. That day, every ASHA realised this was going to be different," The Times of India quoted her as saying.
Residing in Pole village, Suman leaves her home every day at 8 in the morning after daily household chores and treks 12-13 kms to reach one of the four villages assigned to her-Mangaon, Shirkoli, Thangaon and Ghodshet. She makes sure to cover as many homes as possible. All she takes with her is a bamboo stick and a bottle of sanitiser occasionally.
"I can't climb a hill or cross a river in a PPE kit. All I carry is my stick," she told The Times of India.
Every day when she returned home, Suman was afraid that she might be the source of infection to her family. But thankfully, that didn't happen, she says. The health worker added that none of the villages assigned to her reported a single case during the second wave. It took weeks of work, but she succeeded at last.
While on her journey, she explained to people about the Covid protocols, masking up and sanitising their hands. But once she left, she hoped that the villagers would keep in mind her given instructions.
"The lockdown had upset many, and people just got angrier when I asked them to stay indoors. But I told them it was the only way to stop the spread," she told The Times of India.
Dhebe, also called 'Doctor Bai', has been associated with this job since 2012, taking care of pregnant women, newborns, and new mothers, ensuring their safe deliveries in government hospitals. But after the pandemic, she was tasked with ensuring that the infection did not spread to the villages. Dhebe says her son, who works in Pune, wants her to look for another job and move to the city with him, but the ASHA says it is unlikely to happen.
"We get Rs 2,000 per month. But I've been visiting these villagers for years and I feel responsible for them. So, I cannot move to the city," she added.
Last year, the officials had credited the success of the COVID-free villages to Suman's hard work.
Pune Zilla Parishad's chief executive officer Ayush Prasad had told The Times of India, "Most of the villages in Velhe taluka are in remote areas and providing health care services there is a big challenge due to geographical constraints. Our ground staffers, like Dhebe, have been working hard. Because of this, we have managed to quarantine people."
The governing body is also planning to provide more facilities to Suman, like a two-wheeler. But Suman says that she will fulfil her commitments regardless of the facilities, no matter what it takes.