It is a terribly humid day in Charsadda. Nabila*, aged 28, is a daily-wage polio worker. She fully expects every day in the door-to-door polio eradication campaign to toss new challenges her way.
Acceptance of the situation gives Nabila the energy to face the challenges. Still, her job is a difficult one. Clad in a traditional burqa in the sweltering heat, she has to ring every doorbell and knock at every door to meet her daily targets.
Giving the polio vaccine to children in harsh weather, which switches unpredictably from severe heat to heavy downpours, is the task hundreds of women like Nabila have. They are the frontline workers in the polio eradication drive.
These workers, a majority of them women, are the unsung heroes of the campaign to make the province and the country polio-free.
It is not an easy job. In some parts of the country, it is a dangerous job.
In Charsadda, polio workers are putting their lives at risk. They face a myriad of challenges, ranging from death threats to paranoid arguments and refusal by some parents to get their children inoculated.
“Sometimes it becomes very difficult.Some parents hide their babies to avoid polio drops,” Nabila tells The News on Sunday.
The campaign is quite systemic. The work is divided into three stages; pre-campaign, campaign and post-campaign.
First, a polio team prepares the micro-plan listing requirements, numbers of houses and vaccines. The next day is dedicated to a one-day training session for lady health workers (LHW) and social workers. A senior person gives the rest of the polio team a briefing. It covers basic guidelines on how to administer polio drops, when to do so and where. In this meeting, the workers are assigned their localities. They also consult the village map with demarcation for the launch and end of the campaign to become familiar with their task. An area in-charge heads four teams of polio workers.
On the campaign day, a morning assembly is arranged for all the inoculators. They are issued instructions about the polio drops and their importance.
The workers are told to reach out to every child and cover all the households in the union council (UC) assigned to them. They are also responsible for checking guest children in the campaign area.
High-risk mobile populations (HRMPs) are the focus of the campaign. The workers are advised to focus on migrant communities since they are most susceptible to the virus. Inoculating these children is always a priority.
Later on, the team is issued instructions on how to dress and conduct themselves according to the local norms and values. In the field, their activities are monitored. If the workers face any difficulties, the monitoring team resolves those.
With instructions to complete the polio campaign in the target houses, the teams set out. Each team has a target of between 60 and 80 houses. Each polio worker needs to visit all the target houses, irrespective of the weather.
“Achieving the target is a must,” says Nabila, “I remember before the Eid, when we were on the field, at least five women had a heat stroke.”
“Instead of resting or getting a proper check-up, these women got back up after first aid and resumed their duties,” says Nabila.
“The weather is hot and humid. The door-to-door campaign becomes very difficult in severe weather conditions. Proper medical aid must be provided to workers who suffer from heat strokes or faint,” she adds.
“But the campaign just goes on. Even in the rain, we have to work,” continues the polio worker. “To make it worse, we are not provided umbrellas or raincoats to protect ourselves from rain. It is pretty much on us,” she says.
According to Nabila, every now and then a polio team encounters family elders who refuse to cooperate. “Each house is different,” says Nabila “Most people cooperate with us but sometimes we face difficulties.”
“Like when people become suspicious and ask ‘Why did you come to our home? Why do you (the polio team) visit our home so frequently?’ or when they demand medicines and access to other healthcare facilities instead of polio drops,” she says.
“Even though we do not represent the government, we sometimes face the wrath of livid residents who think that we do,” says Nabila. “There have been times when we were sworn at and told all sorts of things,” she adds.
Over the last few years, several female workers and police personnel have been killed during the polio campaign.
“Sometimes the police personnel are lax and putlives at risk. Instead of accompanying the polio team door-to-door, some of the policemen prefer to keep a distance,” she says.
“Mostly they head to the village hujra and socialise there instead of standing guard,” says Nabila. “Many polio workers have been killed. Many more have been harassed but the security lapses continue to occur.”
A spate of violent attacks targeting polio workers was reported after April 2019. These incidents coincided with campaigns on social media that spread disinformation about polio inoculation. After this, the number of parents refusing to administer polio drops to their children increased manifold in some parts of the province.
“It is not considered a respectable profession for women in our community,” says Nabila, “Are jobs are not secure, nor are our lives.” “I’m planning to quit soon,” she concludes.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
The writer is a multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney