Bankers working on frontlines, but without protection, say kin of deceased staff
‘The government is to blame. This disease was there last year too. They knew the dangers. Everyone visits banks so they should have protected the employees,’ says Agra-based Sunita Chaudhary who lost her husband.
Working on the frontlines to keep banks running through COVID-19, about 1,300 bank employees lost their lives to the pandemic in the past year, leaving behind families who are questioning whether enough was done to protect their loved ones.
In 2021 alone, over 600 staffers from 10 private banks and 12 public sector banks have died of COVID-19 so far, out of the total of 1,300 since March 2020, All-India Bank Employees’ Association (AIBEA) general secretary C.H. Venkatachlam said.
To Agra-based Sunita Chaudhary, who lost her 58-year-old husband Shiv Shankar Chaudhary on April 18, it was clear who was to be blamed. Her husband, she said, was the branch manager of a public sector bank in Agra and had been going to work despite having diabetes.
“The government is to blame. This disease was there last year too. They knew the dangers. Everyone visits banks so they should have protected the employees…My husband is just a number for them. But we have lost the sole earner of our family, the head of our family,” she said.
Her husband fell ill during the second wave when medical infrastructure was overwhelmed, leaving patients and their families in the lurch.
“If he had got a hospital bed with the required treatment in time, he would have been saved,” she said, recounting the ordeal of going from one hospital to another, looking for the life-saving oxygen and equipment needed.
While Shiv Shankar did get a hospital bed and the senior staff of his bank helped the family, Ms. Chaudhary thinks it was all too late. Now, she worries about the future of her three children — a 29-year-old son who was left disabled after a stroke five years ago and two younger children who are students.
“I told him not to go to work but he said he had to because he had the keys,” she said.
The second wave of the pandemic proved deadly for 21-year-old Vidushi Tandon’s father, Subodh Tandon, who worked at a public sector bank in Kanpur. It started with a rapid antigen testing camp in their apartment complex on April 16, Ms. Tandon recalled. While he tested positive that day and in a subsequent RA test, the RT-PCR tests of the whole family a few days later came out negative.
“But, we were advised to get a CT scan and it showed that he had the symptoms of COVID. It took us nine hours to have him admitted to a hospital on April 21. I used to go to the hospital to give him water or whatever he needed. The staff never gave me a reply when I asked about his treatment. They kept telling me he’s fine, his oxygen level is fine,” she said.
Ms. Tandon said her father was discharged from hospital on May 2 and soon after she observed he was bleeding from his nose, the right side of his face had swollen and he had trouble seeing.
‘Symptoms of black fungus’
“Now I see on TV that these are symptoms of black fungus. He had diabetes for the past five years but it was under check with medicines. He only started using insulin in the hospital because of COVID. But when they discharged him, they didn’t tell us to continue insulin and his sugar shot up. He had a silent heart attack and died on May 6. I don’t have any proof of this. This is what I assume happened. Had the doctors advised us correctly, this would not have happened,” she said.
Families of bank employees across the country have had similar experiences this year. In Andhra Pradesh, bank employees were among the worst affected.
A. Ramya, daughter of A. Ravindra Kumar, a 58-year-old branch manager of a bank in Satyaranayana Puram of Vijayawada was clueless about the future since her father’s death on April 18.
“He was going to bank now and then and fell sick a few days after relatives visited our house. He later tested positive for COVID and got admitted to a hospital. Five days later we lost him. My elder sister died five years ago in an accident and it was me and mother left to console each other,“ Ms. Ramya said.
Ms. Ramya graduated recently and was looking for a job. “Due to the pandemic, there were not many openings. My father’s higher officials at the bank helped complete the formalities and also came forward to help me find a job,” she said. Ravindra Kumar had undergone heart surgery.
In a similar case, P. Chaitanya and his family lost P. Muralidhar, a 54-year-old bank manager in Gundugolanu, on May 9. The family is still grieving the death of Muralidhar who was a physically active person.
“My father was going to the bank when he caught the virus. He got isolated immediately after showing symptoms and started using medicines at home. We got him admitted to the hospital as finding a bed was difficult. Four days after being treated in the general ward of a private hospital he passed away. This has been a major loss to our family which is still unable to digest what has happened,” Mr. Chaitanya said.
It was almost impossible for him and many bank employees to work from home even in these conditions. Even his elder sister who works in a Secretariat had to attend duty without fail, says Mr. Chaitanya who was preparing to appear for competitive examinations.
Ch. Pitchaiah, a head cashier in a bank in Guntur district, died on April 26 after battling for life for 10 days in a hospital. Before that he attended work even though he was feeling sick due to fluctuations in sugar levels and other issues, according to his son Ch. Vinay Kumar. Pitchaiah was about to retire in less than a year.
“He was forced to attend work even though he was weak for 10 days. He was the only senior person available to handle certain operations in the bank as other higher officials were newcomers. He even worked on the cash counter after giving a sample for the COVID test. The result was negative but symptoms were persistent for a few later. We then took him to a government hospital where he tested positive through a rapid test,” Mr. Kumar said.
Mr. Kumar added that the family was told he was doing fine for five days and could not get in touch later until they were informed about his death.
Jobs on compassionate grounds
As the grieving families are left picking up the pieces, Mr. Venkatachalam of the AIBEA said the families should be given preferential and speedy consideration for employment on compassionate grounds.
“There is sudden loss of the breadwinner. The guidelines regarding age should be relaxed and the families should be given priority. The banks must carry out vaccination drives on priority also. The bank employees are working on the frontline, but without vaccination as the bulk are between 18 to 44 years of age. They have been facing grave emotional and physical risk. They are highly dejected and anxious. Banks must think out of the box to protect their employees,” Mr. Venkatachalam said.
He added that the AIBEA had written to the Indian Banks’ Association on May 6 seeking fast-tracking of appointments on compassionate grounds.