• Sunday, May 31, 2020
  • Last Update : 04:16 pm

Life on the frontline during coronavirus: Hotline workers under huge pressure

  • Published at 02:15 pm April 5th, 2020
hotline-call centre workers
File photo of call centre workers Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Every phone call must be answered, as people are panicked these days because of coronavirus

Just about a month ago, life was very easy for Samira Ahmed Sumi [pseudonym], a call centre worker at National Health Helpline “Shastho Batayon 16263”, a government managed round-the-clock medical advice and consultation service.    

She used to attend office, take calls, and respond to those and return home.

But she never saw herself working as a frontline worker in dealing with a disaster facing the country.

Earlier, on a regular day, Sumi, a health information officer (HIO), used to receive 200-250 calls on average, but since March 8, when the first coronavirus case was reported, she has had to deal with an average of 1200-1500 calls per day.

“Now, I am serving a full shift of 13 hours a day, instead of my earlier task of managing calls for six hours in a shift,” this is what she said when asked on how the Covid-19 changed her life.

Sumi lives just 15 minutes away from her office in a rented flat in Farmgate. She wakes up at 7.30am, and by 7.55am, she is already in her office putting her headphones on.

By the time it strikes 8 o’clock, she is ready for her shift.

Her daily schedule includes

Nowadays, most of her colleagues, including Sumi, are doing 13 hour shifts, instead of their regular six hour shifts.

At the call centre, HIOs work in three shifts - 8am to 9pm, 3pm to 9pm, and night duty 9pm to 8am (males only in night shift).

During their working time, the HIOs respond to calls with many queries and information.

“Let’s take one example from people who call us. There was a call from Narayanganj where a woman wanted to share confidential information with me – her grandmother-in-law invented a vaccine for coronavirus. She asked for a number where she can share it with the government,” Sumi told this correspondent on March 31.

“But following our rules, I tried convincing her that it was a wrong concept,” she added.

“With every single second, we continue to receive phone calls from people, mostly asking how coronavirus can affect the human body. In many calls, people share their health status and ask for suggestions on whether they are out of the danger of coronavirus or not,” Sumi continued.

By 9.30am, she has her breakfast during a 10 minute break.

“We have to talk to everyone, because people are heavily panicked nowadays,” she said.

While some callers are convinced with the answers within short times, many take 10-20 minutes, she said.

“We have to listen to everyone and provide them the correct information they need,” Sumi continued. 

By 12pm, Sumi takes a 30 minute break. She can avail only 60 minutes of break during the 13 shift for food, lunch, tea, and relaxation.

Why do people make phone calls?

Many people call the helpline and share myths.

“Today [March 31], four women called and asked whether they can cook fish and spinach together or this has coronavirus risks.

“For the last five days, in addition to Covid-19 queries, people are also asking for whether they will get food from the government or not,” Sumi was telling.

“What to eat. Will we get a relief and if yes then when,” she said quoting those callers who shared their story of remaining unemployed because of the ongoing 21-day general holiday (imposed by the government to curb coronavirus outbreak) and asked for a suggestion on when and how they will get assistance from the government.

When asked on how many people on an average ask for this kind of information, she said minimum 30 people per a day.

“But we can only assist them with health related information,” she told Dhaka Tribune.

According to Sumi, out of the total calls received in a day now, 30% consists of from panic gripped people.

“People with cold, cough, or asthma, call regularly asking for tests, some cry, some shout at us. Some also ask why there are delays with the tests,” she said.

“In such cases, we refer them to speak to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research as we can only provide health advice from Shastho Batayon,” Sumi added.

She said the hotline also provides information on numbers of nearest hospitals, ambulance service, health advisories, etc to the people.

The hotline also receives complaints against hospitals, staff, and pharmacies which are emailed to the admin of the hotline, she added.

People also share information on foreign returnees not maintaining quarantine in their localities.

“Recently, a man from Mymenshingh told his wife that  a returnee from Qatar was not maintaining quarantine, and she called us to ask what could be done. In such cases, we ask them to call police or district administrations,” she shared.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, most calls are coming from Manikganj, Faridpur, Chandpur, Sylhet, Habiganj, Tangail, Narayanganj, Mymensingh, Kurigram, Kushtia, Khulna, Chittagong, Dinajpur, Cox's Bazar and Dhaka, according to the health information officer.

Remaining stress-free a major challenge

According to Sumi, a HIO has to respond to about 1,200-1,500 calls a day amid the coronavirus pandemic, creating huge stress on their life.

Among them, 300-400 of the callers make either prank calls or unworthy calls, she said.

“In each shift, 16 HIOs and 50 doctors work. First, we speak to people to learn about their problem and if they need advice, we refer the calls to the registered doctors on duty,” she said.

Today [March 31], five men called to say ‘I love you’ and two asked for sex, she said.

“It is not unusual. We also listen to abusive language. Sometimes people ask for our phone numbers too,” she said.

These calls are disappointing as it not only irritates service providers, but also keeps the lines busy, Sumi further said.

“I cannot sleep at night after speaking with people for 12 hours. So sometimes we take a full day off, in addition to regular day-offs, to keep up with things,” she said while responding to how they manage stress.

Hotlines at a glance

There are three hotlines numbers – 333 [public services hotline], 10655(IEDCR) and 16263 (Shastho Batayon) who are operating round the clock to provide any coronavirus related information.

As of April 1, Shastho Batayon [16263] hotline provided services to 974,773 callers followed by 82,337 by IEDCR [10655] and 37,407 by public service hotline [333].

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