Colaba’s Pharmacy Workers Risked Life During Pandemic

The war seems upon us and the enemy is in no mood to relent. Even as most of us wear masks, stay indoors and safe, there are a few who brave the storm and risk all for us, at these times. The Draft Colaba in its ‘Unsung Warriors’ series goes beyond the usual Corona Warriors to pays a tribute to the few unsung others, each fighting personal battles and winning…all for us.
Here goes the first of the series Unsung Warriors: The Pharmacy Workers!

It was a dark, rainy and windy afternoon in Mumbai when Cyclone Nisarga made landfall in the peninsular megacity. Colaba, already reeling under the lockdown and containment zones, was the first to face the brunt of the cyclone.

Amidst the chaos and the fear, when almost all of Colaba remained shut, a few pharmacies and medical stores, however, stayed open providing ‘life-saving’ medicines, even basic food items and water to the needy. And, in these trying times, the staff employed at these stores literally turned into saviours for most.

Bhagyashri Deshmukh who works at Wellness Forever medical and general store in Colaba as a pharmacist, like a few of her sort, didn’t dodge duty even on that day when most did. Struggling with an umbrella, handbag, uniform and the mandatory ‘mask,’ she made it, and on time, to her workplace.

The Yavatmal-based girl, who had come to Mumbai only two years ago after getting married, hadn’t an inkling how life would turn out in the first few years in Mumbai. “Within just a year into my job, I found myself living through one of the worst pandemics of all times,” she says.

ALL SMILES: Bhagyashri Deshmukh braved all odds and reported to work throughout the lockdown
Despite the lockdown and the fear of the infection, considering the spike in cases in the densely-populated pockets of Colaba, Bhagyashri came to work regularly, without fail. “Sometimes I’d take a bus, or hitch a ride with a colleague, but make it to work anyhow. After all, so many patients depended on us, especially during the lockdown,” recalls Bhagyashri.

The risks of working at a pharmacy and “dealing with high-risk patients at the time of COVID-19,” cannot be overlooked. “We have to be careful and alert at all times. Most people don’t, because they simply cannot afford to, stock everything at one time itself. Most buy things on a daily basis, especially in families with children and the elderly. Often, there just isn’t that much ready-to-spend cash available with everyone,” says Bhagyashri drawing from her own personal familial experience.

Besides the ‘real risks’, her constantly-worrying family members made it difficult for her to ‘report’ to duty during this period. “My parents, in Yavatmal, just like most others, were particularly worried and wanted me to stay indoors during the lockdown. But, how could I not go, essential service hai to jana hi padega na,” she explains, justifying her decision to continue to work.

Wellness Forever was one of the very few day-night stores that stayed open throughout the lockdown. Senior Customer Service Associate Nirav Jhaveri had to adopt ‘new responsibilities’ and go beyond his ‘job profile’ to personally assist customers during the lockdown.

“At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, there was a huge fear psychosis among neighbourhood customers. Even a slight throat pain or a mild cough would trigger extreme anxiety and send them rushing to the store. They had to be counselled and guided patiently,” says Nirav who took his role as a ‘Senior Customer Service Associate’ to a different level altogether.

FAM-JAM: Nirav Jhaveri with son Ansh, wife Priti and daughter Saanya
Nirav was the “only member of his family moving out of home during the lockdown” and had to be “extremely careful to ensure the safety of the rest of the members of the joint family.” His wife Priti, daughter Saanya, son Ansh and other members were “worried to death and wanted me to stay home” as a pharmacy invites “all kinds of customers.” But despite the fears, Nirav reports to work every day, anticipating new situations and…resolving them too: Providing ‘service’ to the customer in the truest sense.

Bang in the middle of the COVID-19 containment zone, in Colaba Market, where all remained shut out of fear and trepidation sparked by the mushrooming of COVID-Positive cases by the hour, Maratha Medical and Ayurvedic Chemist and Druggist stayed open. It was an essential service that played its role to the hilt. And, it wasn’t easy even for pharmacist and owner Jayesh Mehta who had to tackle multiple challenges, at personal and work fronts, during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“My shop lies right in the middle of the market that had been completely sealed because of the rise in cases in the adjoining slums. I was working in the epicentre of the COVID cases in the area,” he says. The very reason for staying shut was the trigger for a sensitive Jayesh to keep his shop open.

“Where else could anyone sick avail medicines. COVID isn’t the only issue here. So many people need medicines for issues ranging from simple headaches to gastro-intestinal issues, even common-day gynaecological problems. Where would they go?” he offers.

AT THE EPICENTRE: Jayesh Mehta personally assisted distraught customers in trying times
As expected, everyone in his family, including his “parents and wife Anish was worried that my children, Ayansh and Dishita, would contract the infection because of me,” he says. Jayesh downloaded the Aarogya Setu app that “would indicate if I am in touch with a ‘high risk’ person…the app really helped me a lot…I am ‘safe’ to date.”

“For almost two weeks, when the cases were peaking in the zone, I was living in a separate room in my own house, quarantined from all.” In the middle of the lockdown, things went downhill when his “father met with an accident and was bed-ridden at home,” and Jayesh had to handle everything by himself.

“I am duty-bound to inform and explain to customers about the medicines they are buying. Many customers later turned COVID-19 positive. Thankfully, they all fought it and came back fully recovered,” maintains Jayesh.

The ritual, for all of the pharmacy warriors upon returning home after a long gruelling day at work was similar: They’d wash hands thoroughly, sanitise their belongings, head for a bath without interacting with anyone, and in some cases like Jayesh’s, stay in a separate part of the house too.

India has been celebrating the role of Corona Warriors in the fight against COVID-19 but thousands of pharmacy workers toiled in trying conditions, risking their all, day and night. They deserve the accolades.

(Note: Some subjects may have removed their masks only to be identified in photographs to be used with this news report. COVID-19 appropriate behaviour has been maintained at all times)