DISHA, comprising trained social workers and counsellors, answers questions about COVID-19 from across Kerala, other Indian states and abroad
“Sir, even if you return to Kerala, you won’t be able to step out of your house. You have to be on self-quarantine at your house. The decision is yours. However, if you are proceeding with your travel plans, do inform us once you land at the airport,” requests Sindhu JS, while speaking to a caller from Qatar. “He wants to come to Kollam to see his father in the ICU. He wanted to know how safe it was to travel to Kerala because of the Coronavirus outbreak. I had to apprise him of the situation, although I could empathise with his predicament,” she tells me before attending to the next caller from Thrissur who wants to know if she could get the COVID-19 test done even though she had no symptoms.
In another cubicle, Rakhi Raj J has a caller from Kozhikode who is upset because he has fever and wonders if that is a symptom of COVID-19. She connects him to one of the doctors in Kozhikode.
Sindhu and Rakhi have been attending calls without a break since 7.30 am when I meet them at 11 am at the office of the Direct Intervention System for Health Awareness or DISHA, the 24-hour tele-health helpline number. Functioning from the first floor of Arogyakeralam office at Thycaud, the small air-conditioned room can easily pass off as any call centre with rows of cubicles, computers and minimal furniture. But since January 22, a dedicated team of trained professional social workers and counsellors has been working 24×7, answering questions about COVID-19 from across Kerala, other Indian states and abroad.
At your service
While 14 of them have been working in three shifts — two morning shifts of six hours and a 12-hour night shift — in the beginning, it has been increased to 13 staff at a time during peak hours and five at night. Their job entails giving guidelines about the viral outbreak and precautions to be taken regarding travel, home quarantine and isolation.
“From just three calls on the first day, it jumped to 1,200 and then to 1,500 calls per day since fresh cases were reported from Pathanamthitta. The total number of calls crossed 8,000 on March 12. The calls come in every second and by the time one of us clears the doubts of a caller, many calls would have come in between. DISHA already has 15 staff members and we are taking 15 more trained counsellors on a temporary basis in order to reduce the number of abandoned calls,” says Akhila V Nair, floor manager, DISHA.
Launched in 2013, the helpline desk usually has five or six staffers at a time and there are two shifts. “We were active during several crises that hit the state, especially during the floods and Nipah outbreak. But we’ve never been flooded with so many calls,” says Akhila. Details about each caller is entered into the Google spreadsheet that can be accessed by the whole team simultaneously and officials of the health department in various districts.
“Those who haven’t reported at the airport after their arrival from a COVID-affected country get in touch with us to find out the place they would have to report. We pass on the telephone number of health centres or hospitals in the respective district. Then there are people who seek advice as they are stuck in Kerala due to travel restrictions to the countries where they work. They are worried about losing their job,” Akhila adds.
Many people dial DISHA if they have fever, cough or cold while some calls are to find out where to buy masks and hand sanitisers. Doubts are also raised about inter-district and inter-state travels. Some people want to know why they have to stay at home even after getting screened at the airport, according to Priyanka K Pillai, a staff at DISHA for the last three-and-half years. “We have to explain that airport screening is not foolproof and they may develop symptoms after a few days,” she says.
Convincing confused, upset, frightened and, in some cases, annoyed people, is not an easy task, say the employees. “We have to elaborate on the need to be safe than sorry and instruct them how to be under home quarantine — they have to stay in a well-ventilated room without interacting with members of the family, the things they use shouldn’t be used by anyone else, they have to maintain personal hygiene…,” explains Preethi SK, an employee for DISHA since its launch.
She adds, “Except for washroom breaks, we are glued to the seat so that we can attend all the calls. We hardly get time to eat the food we bring from home. So we keep having water so that we aren’t exhausted after talking continuously on the phone.”
The callers are advised to get back to the DISHA number if they develop any symptoms of COVID-19. Instead of rushing to a hospital, those who dial in are provided the contact number of the superintendent of the isolation ward in the district concerned so that arrangements could be made about their transportation and check-up, says Nishad KC, another staff member of DISHA.
In between, the team has to tackle angry callers as well. “A person who returned from Switzerland called up to ask why he has to be at home when just two cases have been reported in Switzerland. But we have a file on the geographical distribution of COVID-19 which says that Switzerland is one of the badly affected countries. I had to handle similar outbursts from people who had returned from Belgium and Bahrain. Then there are people who get in touch with us to vent their anger on the government machinery!” says Nishad.
Non-Malayalis also contact us seeking guidance. “We get enquiries in English, Tamil and Hindi. We can manage English and Tamil to an extent, but Hindi is difficult to handle for some team members. However, we try to help in the best possible way we can,” Akhila concludes.