At a Southern Railway office in Chennai, 56-year-old Saravanan had two visitors on Wednesday afternoon who gave him a scare. “After a discussion that lasted for about 10 minutes, both of them coughed almost simultaneously,” the officer said. “I panicked and had to take another five minutes to explain to them that they cover their mouth when doing so.”

Saravanan had been reading the news about the spread of the new coronavirus in India, which by Wednesday had infected over 150 persons and caused the death of three. Chennai, his city, reported its second positive case of the virus. “But if you come to our office, you would think the virus never took birth,” he said.

There are no sanitisers or masks provided to the employees. The office has hundreds of visitors every day. Saravanan said till Wednesday evening, there was no semblance of any monitoring the entry of people. “We are sitting on the same dusty desks, doing things as though it is business as usual,” he added.

Across the country, state governments have initiated measures to encourage social distancing and curtail the spread of the virus. Schools and colleges, business establishments and cinema halls have been shut. Many private offices have asked their employees to opt for work from home. But for government employees, whether at the state level or at the Centre, there was no indication till Wednesday of any measure to reduce their time in the offices.

Business as usual

On Wednesday, the Union Department of Personnel and Training put out a statement that detailed precautions to be taken at Central government offices. It ordered the installation of thermal screening equipment at entry points and that hand sanitisers be provided. The entry of visitors was to be restricted and those showing flu-like symptoms should were advised to leave the office premises. “The leave sanctioning authorities are advised to sanction leave whenever any request is made for self-quarantine as a precautionary measure,” the release said.

But on Wednesday, government employees weren’t happy. A family member of a public sector unit in Delhi expressed concern at the disregard for the health of government workers. “My mother’s work involves meeting a number of customers who come in to complain about services,” she said. “Till date, nothing has been done to cut down this interaction. Is not the government exposing the employees to danger?”

A municipal worker in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters

The situation was similar in state government offices. A state officer in Bengaluru said there is an expectation that when the state is in trouble, government employees should step up. While this is expected, there are no active measures to minimise risks for the employees. For example, he said even on Wednesday, some higher officers were looking at hard copies of files instead of making provisions to do this digitally. “We keep saying all government offices are digital. But you please come and see how archaic the system still is,” the officer said.

The dangers of unrestricted access came to the fore in West Bengal, where it came to light that a senior officer whose son had tested positive had visited the state secretariat and interacted with scores of officers. This led to the government ordering a total scrubbing of the entire government headquarters in Kolkata.

In Mumbai, an employee of a state-run company said his office got a stock of face masks after employees wrote several letters to the management. “It took days. The standard reply was we are looking into it,” the employee said. He added that he was hoping to avail of two weeks leave as the situation in Maharashtra, which has reported the highest number of coronavirus cases, was making him anxious. “I have two young daughters,” he said. “My worry is more about them.”

Sasikanth Senthil, former collector of Mangaluru, said in an epidemic situation, it would be difficult for senior officers to stay away from work. However, the right strategy for governments would be to ask employees whose presence is not essential to stay home and minimise public interaction at offices. “For example, if there are no elections around the corner, why not ask all election department staff to stay home?” he said. “There are several such layers in the government that need not work for a while.”

Senthil said offices should also cut down on physical files. “Do everything digitally,” he said. “This way, you can cut down interaction within offices.”

For sanitary workers, the seeing images of doctors and paramedics in protective gear in the media has heightened their fears. A sanitary worker in Chennai said he was irritated by people asking him to stay home and take care. “Who will clean your sewers?” he asked. “Will you come and help us?”

He said if doctors inside hospitals require such heavy protective gear to safeguard themselves from the virus, what about those who have to clean the sewers which carry the patient’s excreta? “Should we also not get the same protection?”