Even as the novel Coronavirus pandemic rages on all over the world, COVID-19 designated HAHC Hospital under Hamdard University in the national capital has decided to dismiss 84 nurses, after they demanded access to basic facilities. The nurses had been demanding personal protective equipment (PPEs), N-95 masks, humane working hours, free COVID-19 tests, drinking water, adequate quarantine facilities and health policies for nurses working on COVID-19 duty.
However, instead of addressing their concerns, the administration decided to terminate the contracts of the nurses, especially of those who were about to be made permanent staff. One of the nurses who has been terminated was under quarantine since July 3 after having tested positive for COVID-19. The hospital has also put out an advertisement for recruiting nurses.
“The hospital management has been extremely insensitive to our requests. We have not demanded anything out of the ordinary. The hospital expects us to work more than 12 hours in a PPE and that is taking a toll on our health. Standing in a PPE for more than three to four hours is strenuous, let alone 12 hours. They do not provide us with drinking water,” said GufranaKhatoon, a nurse who was working with HAHC Hospital. She has been in quarantine since July 3 after having tested positive for the virus when she heard about her termination.
The hospital did not provide her with free testing even after she showed symptoms of the disease. “There is a lab in the hospital, but all of us are required to pay. After I questioned the hospital management about their policy, they said I would only have to pay 50% of the test amount. I paid Rs 1,200 for getting tested. The staff should be tested for free. It is the hospital’s responsibility to take care of us. We have contracted the virus because we were working in COVID-19 wards. If I couldn’t pay the amount, I wouldn’t have tested and then I would have been transmitting the virus,” Khatoon said.
The hospital has terminated a number of senior nurses so that they wouldn’t have to be made permanent. According to HAHC Hospital guidelines, nurses who have worked there for more than five years would be made permanent. All the nurses who were terminated had worked between three to six years in the hospital.
In the termination order dated July 11, the hospital administration stated that these nurses were being relieved because of ‘absence from office without sanctioned leave and absent without intimation’. However, several of them were on duty till July 11 and a few of them like Khatoon were in quarantine. “All of us have been logging in. We have the records to prove that we have not taken leave ever since COVID-19 began,” insisted a nurse, who did not want to be identified.
Several nurses said the hospital administration’s decision has been arbitrary. On July 2, the hospital had released an order stating that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and HAHC hospital being declared a COVID-19 hospital, both nurses and doctors were to refrain from sending resignation applications and leave without pay requests citing personal reasons.
The hospital administration refuted these charges. “The nurses were not terminated. Their contracts had expired, and it is the end of their contractual obligations. Is not the employer entitled to decide its own employees? The organisation must reward good employees. False allegations are being made,” countered Dr Sunil Kohli, the officiating medical superintendent of HAHC Hospital.
Kohli claimed that all symptomatic nurses are tested free of charge. “If anybody else wants to get a test done, the hospital will pay 50% and the employee will pay 50%. If the employee turns to be positive, then the hospital will reimburse the amount. Treatment of every employee who tests positive for COVID-19 is free and their families will be treated at 50% discount,” he said.
“Employees are making false allegations. The only true complaint is the drinking water issue. Unfortunately, this is a longstanding problem and we are doing our best to address it. We are a charitable low-cost hospital. We are barely making money. They are protesting for a COVID-19 allowance, but when we put up the proposal to our management regarding this, it was rejected,” Kohli contended.
After receiving a complaint from the HAHC health workers, the Indian Professional Nurses Association sent a letter to the medical superintendent and followed it up with a legal notice. Additionally, United Nurses Association wrote a letter to the Delhi Chief Minister ArvindKejriwal and state labour minister Gopal Rai requesting their intervention in the matter.
In the letters, they have also pointed out that in the ICUs, the nurse to patient ratio was 1:6, when according to nursing guidelines nurse-patient ratio for each shift in every critical care unit should be 1:1. The associations have raised the issues of lack of donning and doffing area, the hospital’s reluctance to permit COVID-19 tests for nurses who are working in COVID-19 wards, no check-up before shifting nurses from COVID-19 to non- COVID-19 wards and denial of salary as per government guidelines.
Rai’s office responded to the complaint from UNA stating that they were looking into the issue. Additionally, Kerala Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswom has written to the Delhi CM regarding the abrupt termination of these 84 nurses. He highlighted that the nurses were terminated without being given a notice period as their contract stipulates. He has urged Kejriwal to intervene in the matter to ensure that their contractual obligations are met, and that they are reinstated immediately.