Monu Kumar and hundreds like him are doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world today, collecting samples from people for Covid tests. A dangerous job that has now become normal
Monu Kumar, 31, is a very busy man and for a good reason. So much so that it’s even difficult to get him to talk on the phone. He’s always running around on his bike, even in this inclement weather, to fetch samples for Covid-19 tests. He operates in Noida and since the start of the pandemic has collected some ten thousand samples. And there are many like him in the NCR and the rest of the country, who are “putting their lives at risk in the service of people,” as he puts it.
Monu leaves home at 8 am and returns late, sometimes way after 9 pm, and on an average, visits more than a dozen people and sometimes the whole family gets the test done. After collecting samples, he neatly arranges the samples in the top pocket of his black shoulder bag. He deposits the sample to the lab twice a day–in the afternoon and evening before going home. He has worked relentlessly and has had only two days off in the last ten months.
Initially, he was paranoid that his young family would suffer the consequences of his risky job, he was concerned about the health of his wife and his five-year-old son. He sent them packing to his village in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh and was free to carry out his work.
There were times, he explains, during the peaks, when nearly every other person tested turned out to be positive. And many of them had no symptoms and there was really no way of knowing. In those peak times, he’d been out collecting samples for 18 hours a day. “I don’t know how that was even possible. I feel something was guiding my efforts. It was God’s blessings,” he explains in Hindi.
It’s God’s blessing that can perhaps explain how he never himself got infected though has been collecting samples from hundreds of positive cases, many of them with huge viral load, and some, he later came to know, didn’t even survive the pandemic. Apart from God’s blessings, “I didn’t get infected because I take all the precautions,” he says.
Most of the people from whom he collected samples have hardly ever seen his face as he doesn’t remove his helmet, a thick mask is tightly fastened across his face, and he wears gloves all the time. “Initially, I couldn’t even breath with a mask on, now I feel it’s almost become a facial feature,” he laughs.
“Many of my friends got infected, and two I know have died,” he says, adding, “so many doctors also got infected.” There is a strange way in which the Covid virus spreads that’s not in the scientific realm, he’s fairly superstitious about it. “To get infected or not is a matter of God’s will,” he explains, “so months ago I stopped worrying about it.” And his faith has kept him in good stead.
And he has his own method of knowing if someone is positive, “Can you smell, can you taste, is there a body ache, are you depressed? If three of these four answers are negative you’re in all likelihood negative of Covid virus.” he explains.
The writer of the story gave him a sample a couple of days ago–was under the weather after the new year celebrations. As luck would have it, Monu was already collecting samples in the neighbourhood. He asked me to drive to him only if I have a mode of private transport. The sample was collected in my car, in front of the main gate of Silver City in sector 93 of Noida. And a conversation ensued over a cup of tea. He had good news, very few of the samples collected lately have been tested positive, to the extent he was tempted to say with much excitement, “Corona to aab khatam hi ho gaya hai.”
He feels that the worst is over and people are resuming their lives without much fear. It is this sentiment that convinced him to bring back his family. But he draws satisfaction in the egalitarian nature of the pandemic, it doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor.
Initially, it was the rich and the middle class who could afford to get tests from private labs, at one point in time the test cost Rs 10,000, and for the longest, it was for Rs 2,400. The price of a test has now come down significantly–Rs 900 now. So Manu is making less than he used to, though was not open to sharing the monetary arrangement that encourages him to do possibly one of the riskiest jobs in the world these days.
“I have to go,” he said, cutting the conversation short, though promised to talk about himself on the phone. But to catch him on the phone is very difficult and to be on the move has become a habit. The pandemic has led to a different and fairly bizarre new normal for him.