Overworked & underprotected: Crematorium workers demand priority vaccination

As the Covid dying toll continues to mount in India, overworked crematorium and cemetery workers at excessive danger of publicity to the virus proceed to do their work unvaccinated and with out enough safety.

Sher Singh, a 35-year-old Hindu man who digs graves on the Delhi Gate qabristan for Muslims, tells us, “There are no N95 masks being worn here, the workers are too poor to afford them. The gloves being worn by some of the workers are also of the cheapest quality.”

Ram Karan Mishra, a 30-year-old pujari who performs the antim sanskar (final rites) on the Ghazipur crematorium within the Delhi-NCR area, admits, “A lot of workers don’t have gloves, nor do they have sanitisers with them. And none of us have got a shot of the vaccine yet.”

He provides, “We are scared, we have families too. Crematorium workers should be given the vaccine on priority but we have no time right now to protest for it because we’re too busy with work.”

Citizen Volunteers Respond to the Crisis

Shray Gupta, co-founder of The Good Food Project, at a crematorium in Delhi NCR.

Ram says, “Earlier, there would be 10-15 bodies cremated here in a day. But in April this year, we had 100-150 bodies being brought here daily. Normally, we would work from 8 am to 6 pm. Now, we are working from 4 am to 10 pm – 18 hours a day. It is the same 15-odd people who are working, even with this increased workload.”

Sunil Sharma, a 45-year-old employee on the Ghazipur crematorium, feedback on the fallout of needing all arms on deck. “Food became a problem too – even the person who would cook for us during the day had to begin working on the cremation of the bodies, because we were so short-staffed.”

They are drained and hungry, overworked and underprotected, and but the hardships of those crematorium and cemetery workers have largely gone unnoticed. Now, a bunch of children within the capital are engaged on altering that.

Nandini Ghosh, a 29-year-old administration guide in Delhi, and her buddy Shray Gupta, have co-founded The Good Food Project, an initiative that’s offering meals and different necessities to crematorium and cemetery workers.

What made them begin this mission? Nandini solutions, “There were reports of crematorium workers not receiving meals and working in very bad conditions. While there are so many organisations who are doing so much for people who are living alone, or healthcare workers, or those who are Covid-positive, etc – there wasn’t much being done for crematorium and qabristan workers.”

Shray, a 29-year-old entrepreneur engaged on rural electrification and a co-founder of The Good Food Project, lists out the help being supplied by them, “We are giving the workers food, PPE kits, masks, ORS solutions and juices, and we are going to be providing sanitisers and disinfectant machines as well.”

Volunteers of The Good Food Project distributing meals to crematorium workers.

How It Started, and a Fundraiser that Exceeded All Expectations

“I spoke to my friend Shray on Sunday (2 May) and asked him, “Do you want to do this?” Then I referred to as up two dhabas subsequent to my home and requested them, “Can you make 50 packets of dal-chawal or roti-sabzi? I need it in an hour.”

– Nandini Ghosh

And quickly sufficient, the 2 have been off to Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat.

“We could smell the smoke from four kilometres out,” Nandini recounts. “On reaching the crematorium, we met two men in the office there and enquired about the condition of the workers. They said that the workers were provided with meals every day. ‘But on going near the pyres and asking the workers themselves, we found out that that wasn’t the case. ‘They must have thought you were journalists,’ the workers said. We then proceeded to distribute the food we had brought to the workers there.”

When they received again house, the 2 of them felt that one thing greater wanted to be completed. They put up a small crowdfunding attraction – looking for to lift 50,000 rupees to assist crematorium and qabristan workers.

Ever for the reason that crowdfunding web page went up, contributions started pouring in. And to their shock, inside a mere 48 hours, they’d managed to lift greater than 15 lakh rupees.

Nandini was overwhelmed, “There were artists and bakers who sold their artwork and products with the aim of sending 100% of the proceeds to our crowdfunding initiative. There were people from the Indian diaspora from places like Dubai, Boston, Toronto, who contributed.”

The Good Food Project was born, and Nandini and Shray ramped up the size at which they have been working. Nandini says, “We now have about 15 on-ground volunteers, and we divide ourselves into groups of 2 or 3 and visit the various crematoriums in and around Delhi. There are also other volunteers who are working on back-end stuff and logistics remotely.”

Nandini Ghosh and Shray Gupta have co-founded The Good Food Project, an initiative that’s offering meals and different necessities to crematorium and cemetery workers.

At A High Risk of Infection

Sunil Sharma, who works on the Ghazipur crematorium, explains the danger workers like him are going through, “We have to interact with the family members who are bringing in the bodies, there are times when there is some physical contact too, such as our hands touching, etc. There have been occasions when COVID-positive family members have brought along a body for cremation. They don’t even tell us that they are infected themselves, maybe because they fear that we’ll refuse them.”

How did he discover out that they have been COVID-positive then?

Sunil responds, “They have to come back to the crematorium the next day to pick up the ashes, right? But they call us at night and say, “We can’t come tomorrow, actually we also have COVID.” But they hadn’t informed us this once they got here to the crematorium.”

“Some of the workers didn’t even have masks, forget about other protective gear,” says Nandini. And even the protecting gear that the workers have isn’t of the advisable high quality. Sudhir, a 20-year-old employee who helps burn the our bodies on the Ghazipur crematorium, remarks, “We don’t have good masks. We buy the masks which cost 20 to 30 rupees, because we have to save too, right?”

Shray recounts, “One of the crematorium workers told us that many of his fellow workers had fallen ill and stopped coming to work.”

Ram, one of many pujaris at Ghazipur says, “We have kept medicines for fever with us – we are taking those meds and getting to work. There are workers who are popping pills and continuing to toil. Nobody has got tested for corona.”

Working in Fear

Sher Singh, a gravedigger on the Delhi Gate cemetery, says, “I live with my parents, wife, 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. I just hope that my kids don’t catch the virus. I don’t let my kids even touch me when I’m home. Even having a cough right now seems so terrifying.”

He provides, “My children tell me, “Papa, rehne do (Dad, don’t go to work).” But what can I do? I’ve to earn. I inform them that I’ll watch out.”

In his 5 years of working on the burial floor, Sher Singh says that this has been the hardest time, by far. “At work, I have been breaking down into tears every second day – just seeing the pain and misery around me at the qabristan. There are so many young people being buried – someone’s husband, 22 or 23 years old, someone else’s wife, somebody’s child.”

A fearful Ram says, “We have left it in God’s hands now. If we run away out of fear and leave this work, who will do it?

Matching Need and Relief

“When we went to the crematoriums, we realised that the workers also need ORS (oral rehydration salts) because there is just so much dehydration,” says Shray Gupta.

Volunteers of The Good Food Project are equally assessing the wants at numerous crematoriums and accordingly recalibrating their aid work.

Shray explains with an instance, “We went to Ram Bodh Ghat to understand what was needed there. We were told that they would usually cook food there but now due to the increased workload, that has become a problem. We asked them if it would be easier if we sent the food. They said that would help them immensely. They also told us that they run out of disinfectants as well.”

He provides, “We are covering most of the major crematoriums and qabristans in Delhi that need our help. At places where the workers don’t need meals, we are distributing protective gear like masks and boot gloves.”

A Petition to Vaccinate Crematorium and Cemetery Workers on Priority

The Good Food Project is now demanding that every one funeral workers be vaccinated on priority.

Sher Singh says, “I haven’t got a shot of the vaccine yet. If someone supports us, then only will we get the vaccine soon.”

Echoing the considerations raised by workers like Sher Singh at crematoriums and cemeteries throughout Delhi, The Good Food Project is now demanding that every one funeral workers be vaccinated on priority. They are reaching out to native MPs and MLAs, and have even began a change.org petition to lift consciousness.

The petition argues, “As crematorium/funeral workers are at very high risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 owing to record number of deaths and consequently, increased and prolonged exposure to Covid-19 victims on a daily basis, it is imperative that they be vaccinated on priority to have a fighting chance against the virus.”

Shray says, “The crematorium workers aren’t categorised as frontline workers. We are speaking to lawyers about this and also seeing if a petition could be filed in the Supreme Court on the matter.”

Sher Singh acknowledges the work being completed by citizen initiatives like The Good Food Project. “It is very nice to see people coming forward to help us – everyone should help each other in this time of crisis. If I could, I would help too.”

But the onus to assist them, particularly in urgently getting the jab, rests on the federal government. As Sunil Sharma factors out, “The government should vaccinate crematorium workers on priority immediately.”

Will the authorities take heed of the attraction by workers like Sher and Sunil and volunteers like Shray and Nandini, or will our crematorium and cemetery workers proceed to toil on within the riskiest of circumstances, unvaccinated?

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