The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW) has been sitting on a recommendation from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to classify telecom field engineers as front-line workers, a series of letters exchanged between the Cellular Operators Association of India and the government revealed. “Department of Telecommunications (DoT) endorses the request of COAI [regarding treating frontline telecom workers as telecom warriors so as to prioritize them for receiving Covid-19 vaccination,” the department’s secretary Anshu Prakash wrote in a letter to their counterpart Rajesh Bhushan at the Health Ministry on March 16.
Despite the endorsement, Indian states have since entered into different forms of lockdowns cause by the second wave of the pandemic. Yet, the government guidelines have not been updated to classify telecom workers and vaccinate them on a priority basis like their counterparts. In many states, telecom workers are largely exempted from restrictions on movement in accordance with central government guidelines, but the workers themselves are not considered as “frontline” workers, meaning they have to travel and work outdoors with the risk of infection.
“It would be impossible for people to function – conduct everyday business, bank, learn, utilise tele-health services and simply communicate, all while minimizing exposure if the frontline workers had not been at the forefront,” COAI had argued in its letter to the DoT. On April 7, COAI followed up on Prakash’s endorsement with the Health Ministry.”[D]ue to sudden rise in the number of cases, there is fear in the minds of these professionals,” COAI Director General Lt Gen Dr SP Kochhar wrote in a letter to Dr Pradeep Haldar, Deputy Commissioner and In-Charge of Immunization at the Health Ministry. On May 10, COAI sent another letter to Haldar, urging the government to move on the request.
Telecom workers and the pandemic
Telecom workers have largely been exempted from COVID-19 related movement restrictions as early as the first lockdown. However, since telecom engineers have not been given frontline worker status like police officers and municipal workers, they cannot be immunised from the central government’s stock of vaccines. However, telecom towers and fiber optic cables are essential infrastructure to keep internet and telephony services running, and this requires field engineers to do maintenance work onsite, such as to repair equipment, replenish diesel supplies for places with spotty electricity, and do fresh installations of wireless equipment.
A lack of frontline status for telecom field engineers was not a priority throughout most of last year, as the spread of the disease was not as severe as it is in the current wave. However, there were hiccups, such as telecom field staff being roughed up by police. As cases started surging in Maharashtra in April, the COAI formally requested that telecom workers be considered FLWs, as that would clear the way for them to do their work with lower risk to be infected.