New Delhi, Dec 30 (PTI) A sample taken in 30-40 seconds, upwards of 200 a day and at least 30,000 in five months -- add it up and you get lab technician Ashfaque Ahmed, a profile of commitment and courage in a pandemic told in numbers.
The 42-year-old, one of the many thousand anonymous health workers who have been out in the field collecting samples through rain, sun and even snow in some places while most of India stayed indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a medical laboratory technician with the chief district medical officer of Central Delhi district.
Testing is the critical first step in the fight against the pandemic and Ashfaq said it has been his endeavour, indeed passion, to collect as many samples as possible to help in the task, going weeks without an off day and giving up on most of his leave.
On one particular day, he took swab samples for rapid antigen tests from more than 1,000 people, he told PTI proudly.
“On October 12, 2020, I helped conduct rapid antigen tests for 1,101 people at the Pusa (Institute of Technology) campus. I started working at 9 am and worked continuously till 7 pm. I had prepared for this in advance and made arrangements accordingly,” Ashfaque said.
He has taken more than 30,000 samples in just five months individually. The number crosses 50,000 if you consider the samples taken as part of a team.
Dressed for hours in a PPE suit, even during the hot summer months when it becomes all the more uncomfortable, Ashfaque has been working tirelessly without any regard for his own safety and at great personal cost.
In the months since the pandemic struck, he has missed festivals, family occasions and even funerals of close relatives.
“I have barely spent any time with my family,” said Ashfaq, who lives in southeast Delhi’s Jamia Nagar locality with his elderly parents, wife Nisha Anjum and four-year-old daughter Sharia.
But there are no regrets, he said, adding that his family is very supportive but his mother needs to be convinced every now and then.
“My wife work as a TB counsellor so she understands the job requirements but my mother is always concerned about my safety from the virus,” said Ashfaque, who has been working as a lab technician for 15 years.
“One day, my mother asked me how many people might suffer if I didn’t go out for the job. When I replied more than 200, she at once asked me to leave for work,” he said.
On June 28 this year, his 80-year-old father and 70-year-old mother were diagnosed COVID-19 positive and he went into mandatory quarantine. It was tough to stay at home. The disease was spreading rapidly through the city and he should have been out in the field, he said.
When he rejoined work after 14 days, he was allowed to collect samples individually. And so, from July 13, he has been working solo, moving across the length and breadth of the city, including the pedestrian walkways outside ISBT, slum colonies children’s homes and Shastri Bhawan too.
He said he had started working as a “COVID warrior” on April 13 when he joined a team headed by programme officer Dr Puneet Jaitley to conduct COVID-19 tests in various parts of the district.
“Initially, we could not take so many samples as we had to see the capacity of our lab. But as the days advanced, our numbers went up dramatically,” he said Ashfaque said he was determined to collect as many samples as I could from day one itself and was familiar with the risks as he had done similar work during the swine-flu outbreak.
The dangers are there but he is confident he has the skills to sidestep them.
“No doubt, we are at the risk as we have to face a close contact with the subjects and many cough and sneeze hurling virus-loads on you. But this is where your professional skill works. We perform the sampling with just two fingers, and always keep changing our gloves. Hand sanitisation and face coverings are vital.” Sometimes, it requires gentle coaxing and instilling confidence too.
"Some people are scared and panicky… but we as professionals make them understand the importance of undergoing tests,” Ashfaque said.
His seniors are full of praise for Ashfaque’s skills and passion for work.
“He is a left-handed guy. His reflexes are very good and he completes a test in just 30-40 seconds. Apart from this, he is a hard-working person, quite passionate about his work,” says Dr Sunil Minj who supervises his work.
According to the Health Ministry on Wednesday, 20,549 new COVID-19 infections were reported while the number of people who have recuperated from the disease surged to 98.34 lakh pushing the national recovery rate to 95.99 per cent. Like the world, India too is moving towards vaccinations but precautions like social distancing, hand sanitisation and face protection are still necessary as the pandemic is still around.
And Ashfaque’s work remains cut out for him.