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International Nurses Day: What it's like on the COVID-19 frontlines


Every day since the pandemic began, millions of nurses like the duo in India alone make their way to work, with no guarantee of their health and safety when their shift is done.

Easwari and Divya get ready for their evening shift by washing their hands. It’s the first thing they do every day for the last 14 months they’ve spent working at the COVID ward of Gleneagles Global Health City. It isn’t long before both women aged 24 and 30, undo the packaging of their PPE kits and step into them.
It's an evening like any other. Their routine — washing, PPE, double-masking — has become embedded in muscle memory. They say they’ve forgotten what it’s like to not wear a mask. For 14 months, their definition of normal has never been the same.
'Meals after midnight'
"Duty extends by an hour every other night," says V Divya, a staff nurse at Gleneagles Global Hospital as she adjusts her mask. "So, if our evening shift is to end at 11, we end up leaving the ward at 12, clean up and have dinner after midnight. Our eating and sleeping patterns have changed between two COVID waves."
Divya (Photo credit: Jude Sannith)
Every day since the pandemic began, millions of nurses like the duo in India alone make their way to work, with no guarantee of their health and safety when their shift is done. If things were bad last year, the second wave has complicated their lives in unexpected ways.
The pandemic’s impact on the mental health of nurses for one hasn’t been addressed, which means the young frontline workers have been left to fend for themselves, developing a resilience they never knew they had.
'Used to cry on the phone, but I’m stronger now'
"There were times when I used to cry as soon as I got off duty. I used to call home and cry on the phone when a patient under my care ended up dying," says J Easwari, a senior staff nurse at the hospital, "Now, as I grow, I have learned to leave these emotions at work, before I get back home."
Easwari (Photo credit: Jude Sannith)
Although it may not appear to be the case, the country’s healthcare infrastructure has never needed nurses more than it does, today. As of March 2020, India’s nurse-to-population ratio was an abysmal 1.7:1000, which is significantly lower than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 3:1000.
The country has only a total of 3.07 million registered nurses, according to a government reply in the Rajya Sabha last year. This statistic alone is an impediment to India's COVID-19 response.
'Wanted to take care of children and the elderly'
For those who have taken the plunge, the call to serve echoes louder now, than ever before. "I wanted to join nursing when I was in school — when I would see children, psychiatric patients and the elderly struggling with their health. That’s when I decided I wanted to take care of them," says Divya.
Both Divya and Easwari in PPE (Photo credit: Jude Sannith
Dreams, passion and struggles aside, for these nurses, the grimness of the pandemic is part and parcel of everyday life. They say it’s only getting worse. "We hardly encountered COVID deaths last year — maybe just one or two. We expected the pandemic to end in January," says Easwari, "But in two weeks, we began extending our COVID ward. Oxygen requirements have been going up, and patients have been getting sicker."
For the moment, these women head back to the ward to face yet another day of the pandemic, hoping to make it far enough to tell their stories.

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