Cleaning staff: The unsung heroes in the pandemic
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Housekeeping staff at the GPHC, Philion Pratt (right) and Nicola Hendricks
Housekeeping staff at the GPHC, Philion Pratt (right) and Nicola Hendricks

By Vishani Ragobeer

LESS than a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Guyana. While healthcare workers have been on the frontlines battling the novel coronavirus and its adverse effects on individuals, cleaning staff and sanitation workers have been right behind them, providing the second line of defence, in the enduring circumstances.

In the first few months of the pandemic, the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) was seen as the epicenter of the country-wide medical efforts to combat COVID-19, which isn’t hard to imagine given that it is the biggest and best-equipped hospital in Guyana.

While the hospital housed and treated patients infected with COVID-19, its operations were constantly evolving to adapt to the pandemic. And, with that came the obvious need for increased sanitation.

“I used to work in the COVID-19 resting room and it wasn’t easy at all,” Ronella Dow, a maid with the GPHC’s Housekeeping Department, told the Sunday Chronicle.

In this area, extra precautions were necessary; there was the ever-present possibility that each person around her was infected with the virus and she had to ensure that she was suited in her Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): her medical gown, gloves and of course, her face mask. She had her mini bottle of hand sanitiser, always.

As a housekeeping staff, she had to ensure that the wards and environs were kept clean and tidy. That meant picking up discarded PPE, wiping the walls, floors, windows, sinks, washrooms… and well, you get the idea.

“Sometimes you does want to know if it is a pig pen because they does just take off everything and throw it down right there… the washrooms does be a mess and so,” Dow lamented, adding: “It wasn’t easy working with COVID because is we work, you have to do it.”

She understands the importance of her job, but is befuddled at those who still refuse to acknowledge the reality and severity of the pandemic.

“I think that people need to get real. COVID is here and COVID ain’t going nowhere for now,” Dow lamented, recounting the many instances she has seen persons displaying such scant regard for the measures geared at protecting them and their loved ones.

She even related that there are people who would ‘buse’ her for advising them to wear a mask. In addition to the housekeeping staff, there were other cleaning employees and contracted workers who were tasked with keeping the linens clean, sanitising the patients’ beds and facilities and ensuring that the hospital, as a whole, was kept clean.

Though there is a general focus on maintaining a sterile environment in medical spaces, like the hospital, the pandemic necessitated an even greater focus on cleaning and disinfecting. Continuous investigations illustrated that the virus could be spread through aerosols and droplets, and could remain on surfaces for varying periods of time. Resultantly, the job of the cleaning staff became all the more important, if the spread of the virus was to be constricted.

“We gah sanitise every day. Every day you gah wipe the walls and everywhere else, you gotta keep sanitising all the time,” another housekeeping staff, Philion Pratt, emphasised.

Of course, these were duties performed before the pandemic but she explained that there was a greater emphasis placed on engaging in the cleaning activities numerous times a day. With patients, including those diagnosed with COVID-19, going in and out of the hospital, or being transported to the various wards and areas, that emphasis was crucial to help prevent the spread and, yes, save lives.

“At first when I started working (during) COVID, it was May month and nobody wanted to do it,” Pratt related. There was a lingering sense of hesitancy among the workers, since it seemed as though each day there was new information emerging on how the virus could be easily contracted.

By then, it was known that though Pratt might not experience any of the common symptoms (the dry cough, fever, sore throat, for example), she could still be infected. This would mean that she was asymptomatic and very capable of infecting her loved ones with the virus.

“I got my grandchildren and children to think about,” she said, half-joking that once her daughter found out that she was working in the maternity ward, where COVID-19 patients were, she ‘social-distanced’ from her family.

Eventually, though, she got accustomed to it. Her routine became equipping herself with the necessary PPEs, cleaning the area that had become the transition ward for those patients who were tested but awaiting their results and then, santising ‘outside’ once she was home.

Much like Dow and Pratt, there is Nicola Hendricks, Lavern Holder and a number of other cleaning staff who all work to keep the hospital and its environs safe. These workers are well-aware that they are often the forgotten heroes of the pandemic, even though they too consider themselves frontline workers.

Still, they continue to perform their duties to help protect all persons, even those who refuse to believe that the coronavirus is a real thing.

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