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‘Voice Warriors’ help Assam’s Covid battle

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It took the police and healthcare workers in Assam less than a week to track and test the samples of some 650 of the 861 people who had returned from Delhi’s Tablighi Jamaat event in March.

Barring one, all 27 of those who had tested COVID-19 positive till Tuesday had a link with the religious congregation.

The information that helped the frontline staff locate these people invariably came from a building in Guwahati’s Bamunimaidam locality. This building is where the Sarathi 104 helpline service operates from.

Bamunimaidam is one of Guwahati’s busiest spots because of a popular multiplex and an expansive market of perishables believed to offer a better bargain than most others in the city.

The buzz in the helpline office is in sharp contrast to the locked-down city beyond its walls — with hardly a soul on the streets and only an occasional passing vehicle, usually of the police or healthcare personnel or those delivering essentials to specific areas.

Here, 90 men and women — 30 to a shift of eight hours with each member seated in a cubicle and wearing headphones — log calls on their desktops. Meals and toilet breaks apart, they stick to a routine: attend calls as soon as the phone rings, and input the information received on their desktops.

“The team has been handling 9,000 calls, 3,000 more than normal capacity every day since the day the government came to know many people had returned from the Nizamuddin event, probably unaware that they could be infected,” said Pomi Baruah, Deputy Secretary in the Health Department who was made the nodal officer of the 104 service a fortnight ago.

“The helpline was set up some time ago for health-related issues, but was converted into the COVID-19 helpline. Things were quite normal until the upsurge a week ago with the relatives, friends and neighbours of those who attended the Nizamuddin event calling up for guidance and the addresses of the people for the frontline staff to locate,” she told The Hindu.

With the focus of the fight against COVID-19 on the frontline staff, Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma acknowledged the role of the “voice warriors” in the efforts to beat the novel coronavirus. “It boosted our morale,” a team leader at the helpline facility said.

According to Paresh Parasnis, the CEO of Piramal Foundation which has partnered with the Assam government and the National Health Mission in providing the 104 service, the helpline recorded a 250% jump in calls post-lockdown.

“Through Sarathi 104, we have provided validated information as per the guidelines of WHO and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to 1,35,727 beneficiaries in Assam in March,” Mr. Parasnis said. “This initiative has helped in bringing down the anxiety and fear in society caused due to the coronavirus,” he added.

Other helplines have chipped in too. The phones of the 1077 service provided by the Kamrup district administration have seldom stopped ringing.

“People initially called for information on safety measures and to guide us to people in the vicinity who had travelled recently but did not report to the authorities for quarantine,” said information officer Ratan Soud. “Nowadays, the calls are mostly about the availability of essentials,” he added.

(This article was first published in The Hindu)

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