Physics in the pandemic: ‘This coronavirus has created an employment crisis across the country’ – Physics World

Physics

Meenu Stephen is a medical physicist who recently joined the radiological physics department of SMS Medical College and Hospitals in Jaipur, India.

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at pwld@ioppublishing.org.

Meenu Stephen (centre) and colleagues working at SMS Medical College and Hospitals in Jaipur. (Courtesy: Department of Radiological Physics)

In February, I had just completed my master’s degree in medical physics and an internship at Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology, and I was searching for a job from my home in Kannur, Kerala.

While staying at home I realized several things. With an increasing number of coronavirus cases, the government locked down transport services, closed all public and private offices and factories, and restricted mobilization. The use of face masks was promoted, and schools and colleges were closed. All religious groups were told to cancel gatherings to encourage social distancing and reduce the spread of COVID-19. People were only allowed out of their houses to provide essential services or buy essential goods. Police officers regularly patrolled public places and markets to make sure that people stayed apart and to inform people about the importance of social distancing and wearing masks and gloves.

For students at the juncture of their academic career or professional courses, as well as for their parents, the lockdown heightened their anxiety, as it affected their education and job opportunities. Educational institutes had been forced to depend on online learning. I was using social media to get connected and communicating via mobile phone.

This lethal coronavirus pandemic has not just created a medical emergency but also an employment crisis across the country. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, so many hospitals cancelled job interviews. They were not ready to employ new staff and were trying to manage with the existing workforce. The absence of flights, trains and other modes of public transport during the lockdown made it impossible anyway.

Six months after my course completion, two vacancies were advertised for medical physicists at SMS Medical College and Hospitals in Jaipur. The interview was scheduled for 7 July. The main problem that I faced was attending the interview on that day as there was no proper transportation during that time. Travelling from one state to another state was a big deal. Also, different states had different travel rules according to their current COVID-19 situation.

At that time, the only way to reach Jaipur was by flying. Airline services were very few and there were so many procedures to carry out to get cleared for interstate travel. The first mandatory step before flying was to install Aarogya Setu, a central government app that uses location trackers and Bluetooth technology to assess the risk of the user catching COVID-19. Airlines won’t allow passengers on flights if the app shows their status as red. Temperature checks were carried out at all entry points, and self-check in and remote bag drops were mandated to avoid clustering of people.

On the day of my interview, the hospital administration conducted the interview according to the COVID-19 protocol. All candidates attended their interviews with face masks and maintained social distancing. After the interview, I was not able to go back home due to lack of airline services.

According to the Kerala government guidelines for air travellers coming into the state at that time, all should be home quarantined for 14 days from their date of arrival. The guidelines stated that all passengers had to register their details with the COVID-19 Jagratha web portal. After undergoing medical screening for any COVID-19 symptoms, asymptomatic persons must undergo home quarantine.

After reaching home, I was in quarantine for 14 days and my family members were not supposed to visit me. Health workers used to come to my home every day and inspect everything. Police officers also visited daily for inspections and I was asked to call them for requirements including groceries. After these days of quarantine, I joined SMS Medical College and Hospitals as a senior demonstrator (medical physicist) on 4 August.

The distance from my home in Kannur to Jaipur is nearly 3000 km. During my initial days at work, one of my major problems was speaking in Hindi, the local language in Jaipur.  My mother tongue is Malayalam and understanding Hindi spoken by people wearing face masks was a challenge. With time, I adjusted and my interaction with colleagues and patients improved a lot. Accommodation, food and daily travel to the department were also concerns, but I found accommodation near to the hospital within a week, which also solved the commuting problem.

The COVID-19 situation has made me more conscious of personal and public hygiene. The rituals of washing hands and sanitizing things before use, which started as a compulsion, slowly became a habit. At this time, there are no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. However, there are many ongoing clinical trials evaluating potential treatments. And WHO is continuously providing updates and necessary information.

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