Until recently, Eijaz worked as an at-home nurse for an 80-year-old gentleman. After serving the family for three years, he was laid off in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In his mid-40s and now unemployed for the past two months, Eijaz is a worried man. He has four children, his eldest a 16-year-old daughter. He was the only breadwinner for his family.
His landlord is pressurising him to pay up the house rent which is now two months overdue. “I had to borrow money from friends and relatives to keep the stove burning,” says Eijaz. “On top of that, I am afraid my children’s names might be struck off the school since I have not been able to pay their fees. How long can I go on like this?” he asks.
The gentleman Eijaz used to take care of lived with his wife in Karachi, while his sons are settled abroad. As one of the daughters-in-law moved in with the old couple, Eijaz’s troubles began. “The gentleman’s wife was very happy with my work but, as soon as the daughter-in-law began managing the household, issues began to crop up.” Then the old gentleman’s health took a turn for the worse and he was hospitalised. After coming back home from the hospital, he needed the care of a specialised nurse. Eijaz’s services were no longer needed and he was asked to leave.
Eijaz is looking for another job but, till now, has not been successful. Good jobs are hard to find and, these days, even more difficult as people are reluctant to hire new staff for fear that they may infect their families as asymptomatic carriers of the dreaded virus.
Many private nurses or attendants such as Eijaz, who worked long hours taking care of elderly people, are going through the same ordeal. A number of people are letting their domestic staff go for one reason or another. After being laid off suddenly, professional caregivers who worked at patients’ residences are left with no income to support their families.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit domestic staff and attendants particularly hard. Many employers have let them go out of fears of infection or because of increasing economic burdens
Hameeda worked as an attendant looking after her employer Sughra’s mother. Her responsibilities involved assisting the elderly lady in all daily chores, such as bathing her, making sure that she ate her meals on time, giving her medicine and helping her move around the house. Often the lady had to be coaxed and cajoled into eating. “I didn’t even mind cleaning up when ‘Amma’ would sometimes soil her clothes,” says Hameeda, “though I wasn’t told that it would be a part of my responsibilities when I took employment with them. But I took care of her as I would look after my mother.”
A couple of months ago Hameeda too was asked to leave. Sughra spent all her day at home now because of the lockdown and thought that she could take care of her mother herself without getting paid help. “Perhaps Sughra wanted to save a few rupees,” mumbles Hameeda.
Being laid off came as a shock to Hameeda as she was efficiently fulfilling her responsibilities. How would she find another job in the midst of a pandemic, when finding a new job is difficult even in normal circumstances? The 20,000 rupees she earned monthly for a 12-hour shift-a-day was much needed to help her eight-member family to survive. “I don’t know how I will feed my children and pay the house rent. My husband’s health does not permit him to do much work, and my mother-in-law too is suffering from a number of ailments and her medicines have to be bought regularly.”
Hameeda would like at least her sons to receive an education but, in the present circumstances, if she doesn’t find an adequate source of income soon, she will have to take them out of school. “My daughters are growing up. I want to save a penny or two for their wedding. I cannot do that now. I can either feed my family or save up for my daughters’ weddings. God forbid, if anyone else in the family falls ill, there is no way I can seek treatment even at a government hospital,” she says, concerned for the future.
In these testing times, those who employ domestic help or attendants and nurses to take care of their aged parents are understandably worried that their loved ones may become infected by a carrier of the coronavirus. The elderly being the more vulnerable segment of the population at higher risk of contracting the virus, people are taking care that the elderly do not come in contact with outsiders. While many conscientious families have sent their domestic help on paid leave, others have simply laid them off to save the meagre sum they were paying in salaries. Similar to Hameeda’s previous employer, they believe that, since they are home in lockdown or because of their company’s work-from-home policy, they might save some money and do the work themselves.
Nasima’s employer fired her a couple of weeks into the lockdown. “I had even agreed to forego my weekly day off and continue to stay there if that would ease their worries that I would meet people outside and expose my employers to infection,” says Nasima, who was hired to take care of an elderly lady confined to a wheelchair. The lady needed help in bathing, being fed, being given her medication and had to be nebulised. Since Nasima could read the names of medicines, her employer didn’t even have to sort out the medicines on a weekly basis for the pill box.
Though she was not given a reason for being fired, Nasima thinks it is because, “Madam is a bit miserly and might have thought of saving some money. She also told me I was not doing anything that she can’t handle herself now that she is at home.”
Nasima’s husband being a daily-wage earner was already out of work, as most industries were closed or working on minimum staff. “I had taken this job a year ago as the pay was better than what I was earning as a housemaid, and I agreed to live with my employer with only a day off in a week. My daughters are approaching marriageable age and I wanted to save up for their weddings, though I have barely been able to save anything given the ever-rising inflation and escalating cost of living.”
Because of the lockdown, her husband cowwwuld not find work and Nasima thought she would use her pay to run household expenses till things got back to normal and her husband found some work. “But now with both of us unemployed, our small savings are fast depleting. At this rate, we will soon be out on the streets. I have no money to pay rent. What are we going to do?” she asks.
But there are also people like Shehla for whom sending her mother’s attendants home on paid leave was not an option. So she offered extra pay and decided to keep them at her place even on their weekly day off. “I could not take the risk of them going home on the weekend and coming back with some infection,” explains Shehla. “My mother is too weak and vulnerable to be exposed to Covid-19.”
Shehla is a working professional and her children are studying abroad. These days, because of the lockdown, she is working from home. Her mother lives with her, which is easy for her as she can keep an eye on her and the staff who take care of all her needs. However, after a month or so, she had to take the risk and let the maids go for their day off as they were getting homesick and she feared one of them might leave.
“I gave them strict instructions not to meet anyone or roam about their neighbourhood. If they had decided to quit, I would have had another problem at hand,” says Shehla. “My mom has become so used to them that I am afraid she would not adjust to new staff even if I manage to find someone good,” she adds.
This is, in fact, a serious issue with elderly people, especially those with cognitive problems such as dementia — they get used to someone who is taking care of them and find it difficult to adjust to any kind of change. Plus, reliable and trustworthy attendants are hard to find. “I cannot leave my mom with just anyone. I have to be sure that she will be well looked after when I am at work,” explains Shehla.
Shehla is a conscientious employer, but not all domestic help is as lucky. Those who have been laid off during this time often struggle to find new jobs. The pandemic is not showing any signs of going away yet. And with the government warning that Pakistanis might have to learn to live for an extended period of time with it, special attention needs to be paid and concrete steps taken to support such semi-skilled but low-income persons who find themselves temporarily unemployed. Mere lip service in their name is not going to solve their problems.
The writer is a freelance journalist
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 5th, 2020