For more than a month, Kanchana and Vaas have not seen their two children—a daughter of six and a son of three. And they cannot say when they will. Thirty-three-year-old Prabodhini Kanchana is a nurse at the outpatient department of the National Hospital in Colombo. Her husband, 41, is a public health inspector (PHI) with [...]


PHIs and their families who have sacrificed much to battle the pandemic


For more than a month, Kanchana and Vaas have not seen their two children—a daughter of six and a son of three. And they cannot say when they will.

Thirty-three-year-old Prabodhini Kanchana is a nurse at the outpatient department of the National Hospital in Colombo. Her husband, 41, is a public health inspector (PHI) with the Colombo Municipal Council and has been leading the country’s COVID-19 response from the front. Families such as theirs are making difficult choices.

Days before Government imposed the ongoing curfew, the couple realised things could get grim. On March 17, they packed their children—both suffer from wheezing—off to their aunt’s house in Kaduwela. And, together, they steeled themselves for a long slog.

“My husband was working since the end of January when they sent PHIs out to look for those who had come into contact with foreigners from China,” Kanchana said, from her residence in Kelanimulla before setting off for hospital duty. “He tied a handkerchief around his nose and mouth and went to the hotels. We realised it could get dangerous.”

“We explained to the children that they will be at punchi’s house because we have to work,” she related. “We can’t visit them because my son will hang on to me and cry. And we stopped the video calls because he adores his father and cannot understand why he won’t come and get him.”

Every morning, before Vaas set off for work, he would take his toddler for a ride on his motorbike. That routine is now a thing of the past. He often leaves home around 6.30 or 7 a.m. and doesn’t get back till late. An accident has left him with a bad knee which gives him trouble after long hours of standing and walking.

“He hasn’t taken a holiday at all,” Kanchana, who laughs a lot, reflected. “He often says, ‘I’m really tired and tomorrow I will not go’. The next morning, he gets ready and leaves. He has always been a committed PHI, conscious of his duty even when he was involved in dengue prevention. He is more so now.”

PHIs often don’t have time to eat proper meals. Some take packed food from home but others rely on what is provided to them.

Gunasinghapura, Pita Kotte:A PHI checking fever of residents. Pic by Lahiru Harshana

“He tells me not to cook for him because he cannot predict what time he will eat and it would have gone bad by then,” Kanchana said. “They are given one disposable PPE (personal protective equipment) a day and when they put it on, there is a process to get it off again. There is risk of contamination, too, so they wait till their duty is completed to eat.”

Inside the PPEs, it is swelteringly hot. Vaas was part of the team that was deployed to Kotahena where, on April 15, a 59-year-old woman tested positive for COVID-19. He was drenched in sweat and barely had a sip of water. But he came home and sadly told his wife how he saw tired little children, crying in hunger and thirst, while awaiting their turn to be swabbed.

There has been no research in Sri Lankan on the impact of the pandemic on the well-being of health workers. But it is clear their stress is high, particularly as the clusters of infected persons expand. They work long hours. The wives of PHIs interviewed for this article said their husbands leave home early and that there’s no foreseeing what time they will return. And they live in fear of infecting those they cherish the most.

“We do have it in the back of our minds that we might contract this disease because we are both in high-risk work,” Kanchana said. “But we still have job satisfaction and the joy of knowing we are providing a service. We are making personal sacrifices to help see the end of this pandemic.”

Ajantha Pathirana, a 42-year-old housewife who resides in Borella, says her husband, H. M. P. Herath—a supervising PHI (SPHI) with the CMC—now lives apart from them in the same house. It’s a “sort of” self-isolation aimed at preventing their two children, a son of 14 and a daughter of 11, from contracting the virus, should he bring it home.

“He leaves home very early and returns late, sometimes past midnight, when we are asleep,” Ajantha said, of 44-year-old Herath. “There are times he doesn’t come at all. He doesn’t approach the kids and I don’t encourage them to go near him.”

“He sleeps in a room outside the main house,” she continued. “He bathes and disinfects outside. He washes his clothes and his shoes are never brought in.There is little interaction with us.”

This is how it has been for weeks. Herath rests just a few hours a night before rushing out again. The hours he is at home, the phone rings off the hook, particularly owing to his supervisory position.

The pandemic has taken an emotional toll on them all. Before things got much worse, the SPHI took his family to his village in Polonnaruwa, intending to drop them off at his parents’ home and return to Colombo alone.

But it soon became clear the neighbours did not want them there. They feared they had brought the virus with them. “So we turned back and came home the next day,” Ajantha said. “The children were very sad.”

Even in Borella, they do not associate with others because they don’t want to cause alarm. If provisions run out, Ajantha waits patiently till her husband has time to replenish stocks. He has no time to attend to the children’s studies. And he has not taken a day off in more than a month.

And, yet, the family is proud of the work Herath does. “Yes, there is a danger,” Ajantha says. “But I am happy about his job and we are facing it. We understand he has his duty.”

Manel Ranjani is 52. Her husband, S A U T Kulathilaka, is 56 and, therefore, older than most PHIs in his team. This could mean he is more at risk but he, too, is married to the job. He leaves early, returns late and barely has time to eat.

In the frontline: PHIS carry out tests in Kotahena (above and top)

One of the areas Kulathilaka covered was Keselwatte where Bandaranayake Mawatha is located. A large number of COVID-19 infected persons were found there.

“He does not think of the danger,” Manel said. “What our husbands do must truly be appreciated. They are committed to saving the country. Some among the public don’t have the same commitment. Our families are making immense sacrifices.”

Manel and Kulathilaka have three children between 23 and 16. They live at home and, like Ajantha’s kids, they have minimised communication with their father. His food and drink is served to the table and he spends time apart.

“It’s like we are automatically self-quarantined,” said Manel, who lives at Kalumada in Divulapitiya. “Anyway, he has not time to talk to us. Friends and relatives are afraid to see us because my husband moves around so closely with people who may have the illness. We do feel it but we also understand their concerns. So we also keep away.”

In areas like the Jaffna peninsula, there are additional issues. Thirty-seven-year-old Mathuranthaki Ajanthan is the mother of a two-year-old girl. She lives in Inuvil. The adjoining village has been under strict lockdown for the past three weeks.

When infections escalated in the North, her husband, 39-year-old Ajanthan, had to report to work in the night. There were security concerns as the neighbourhood had houses spaced wide apart. With the situation easing in the North over the past few days, however, her husband has been coming home earlier.

Mathuranthaki worries that people, particularly the older generation, haven’t taken the pandemic seriously enough. A cleaner who works in her house claims that the Government is “lying” to them.

The crisis shows no sign of easing soon. But the commitment health workers and the medical community also continues to grow in Sri Lanka, often at great personal sacrifice and risk.

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