KOLKATA - Mr Khudu Sheikh, a 24-year-old construction worker from Mumbai, was among the millions of out-of-work stranded migrant workers who fled cities in India last year.
Desperate to get home in the weeks that followed a hastily imposed national lockdown in March, they latched on to whatever transport they could find - buses, auto rickshaws, bicycles. Those who found none walked, children in tow and infants in their arms.
In May, Mr Sheikh and 48 others hired a truck to ferry them home in West Bengal's Murshidabad district. Each worker paid 5,200 rupees (S$94) for that perilous four-day journey, more than the price of a one-way flight ticket between Mumbai and Kolkata. Mr Sheikh, who had tapped on his meagre savings to survive the lockdown, borrowed from his family to pay for his share of the fare.
As they made their way from Mumbai to Kolkata, the harsh summer sun beat down relentlessly on Mr Sheikh and others in the back of the open truck, where they competed for space even to sit. Hunger gnawed but the desire to make it home kept them alive.
His initial relief soon turned to worry on arrival in Murshidabad - Mr Sheikh and two other co-passengers tested positive for Covid-19. He recovered in about a fortnight, still unsure of what lay ahead. Help came unexpectedly with a government plan to rope in migrant workers who had recovered from the disease.
Dr Amarendra Nath Roy, an assistant professor of orthopaedics at the Murshidabad Medical College, initiated the plan in the early days of the pandemic when he saw that even health workers were afraid to touch patients, adding greater strain to the healthcare system already creaking under a growing caseload.
The unemployed migrants, on the other hand, had beaten the virus and developed immunity. "This meant they had some idea about the disease and were not scared of it," he said. "Moreover, they needed a way to earn some money."
This convinced the state government in West Bengal to launch a project in May in which returning migrant workers were mobilised to augment the state's resources in battling the pandemic. Around 300 such migrant workers are now employed at government hospitals across 10 districts. The workers' contract, which was scheduled to run out at the end of 2020, has now been extended to the end of March.
These "Covid warriors", many of whom worked previously as waiters, tailors, vegetable vendors and manual labourers, were trained for a few days before their placement. They are paid 15,000 rupees each month and those in Kolkata are also provided lodging. "They have become an integral part of the state's Covid treatment model," said Dr Roy.
Mr Sheikh, who has been working at the Infectious Diseases and Beliaghata General Hospital (IDBGH) in Kolkata since July, performs basic but essential tasks such as measuring blood pressure as well as sugar and oxygen levels, besides looking after patients' other needs, such as feeding and hygiene. "We also help the patients video chat with their families and offer them emotional support by telling them we too have recovered from Covid-19," said Mr Sheikh.
Some patients who received care from the migrant workers were impressed. "They were very cooperative and helpful," said Mr Brajagopal Maiti, who was admitted to IDBGH and was looked after by two Covid warriors.
The uncertainty of what happens next though has been worrisome for these workers as the state's Covid-19 caseload has continued to fall since the end of October, which means their services may not be required after March, forcing them to scout for work again.
"We will not be able to return to our previous jobs, which is why we are hoping we are allowed to continue in our current roles that we have come to depend on," said Mr Sahadev Marjit, a 31-year-old returnee who worked in the construction industry in Mumbai and serves at the M. R. Bangur Super Speciality Hospital in Kolkata.
"We took the plunge at the time of danger. It will not be nice if we are abandoned now that the danger is receding," added Mr Sheikh, who suggested that they could be placed at other government hospitals to perform non-pandemic-related roles.
A senior state government official, who did not wish to be named, told The Straits Times a decision on the project's post-March status is yet to be taken, adding that the feedback has been "mixed", reflecting the varying quality of training and mentorship these workers received while being inducted.
Dr Roy, however, hopes that the workers will be absorbed into the healthcare system. "They worked hard in the worst situation, when nobody was ready to touch patients. So they must be given some priority, at least a contractual position if nothing else," he said. "If we can rehabilitate 300 workers, it will suffice for 300 families and help them end their reliance on migrant jobs for survival."