Fighting COVID-19 stigma, another challenge for frontline workers

Imsuba Sangtam
Imsuba Sangtam

Vishü Rita Krocha
Kohima | June 23

From the time the HIV epidemic took seed to the present time of the novel Coronavirus, there has been a major challenge surrounding infectious diseases. While the affected populations have to deal with the stress of handling the disease, they are additionally being severely traumatized with stigma and discrimination. Frontline workers are also not spared from stigmatization as an NST Bus Driver, Imsuba Sangtam dejectedly stated that “the moment people see us, they run away fearing that we are Coronavirus positive.”

“There has been a lot of misconception and rumours about us drivers being infected,” he told The Morung Express. His last assignment has been transporting passengers from Dimapur to Tuensang, covering close to 300 kilometers. These were passengers who arrived in Nagaland through the Shramik special train arranged by the Government of Nagaland carrying 580 stranded Nagaland citizens from Delhi.

Altogether, there were 3 NST buses accompanied by a police escort that travelled to Tuensang, he informed while relating that the train was supposed to reach between 7:00-8:00 pm but was delayed and reached Dimapur only close to midnight. “We started moving from Dimapur around 1:00 am after midnight and reached Tuensang the next evening around 5:00 pm,” he recalled.

After all the hours of waiting for the train to arrive at the Station, he impressed upon that it was very challenging to further drive all the way to Tuensang, wearing PPE for hours together and “the weather was mercilessly hot too,” he added. There are usually two drivers on duty, for one NST Bus. For COVID-19 duty, he said there are about 15 NST Bus Drivers in Tuensang but because some of them are elderly, the younger ones among the lot are more often called for duty.

However, he does not seem to mind as he put across that “I am happy to be of service.” “My only disappointment is people running away from us when they see us,” he expressed. “If we don’t bring them (returnees) back home to their districts, who will?” he questioned. Citing instances, he related how they could not even go the quarantine centre designated for the drivers, in peace, without being looked at with discrimination.

Imsuba Sangtam has done about 4 trips transporting passengers from Dimapur to Shamator, then to Noklak twice and Tuensang respectively. During the last trip, he also suffered a joint sprain and was headed to his village in Chare after completing 16 days of quarantine in Tuensang. “But as per the village council order, I am here at Chare quarantine centre again for another 14 days,” he half-laughingly said.

“I can’t even find a local bone setter who is willing to set my foot right. None of the masseurs want to touch us for fear of Coronavirus,” he further added. This is despite us being tested negative, he divulged.

The 40-year old has been working as an NST driver since 2011. While his siblings are settled in different places, he was looking forward to see his mother in Chare village after a very long time but that will have to wait till he completes his 14-day quarantine.

During our COVID-19 duty, he said they were treated well—“they fed us well on the way, and there was no misbehavior from the passengers.” His only appeal to the Naga public is to do away with stigma and discrimination. “If we follow the government order; are careful and obey what doctors say, and don’t go out unnecessarily, we will be okay,” he articulated.