Inside COVID-19 control rooms: They take those ‘tough calls’

Photo: Jothi Ramalingam B  

From calming nerves to gathering information and offering guidance, a considerable amount of work is crammed into this room.

G. Gladston Xavier from Greater Chennai Corporation’s COVID Control Room and Tele-Counselling Centre (044-46122300/ 044-2538 4520) explains that “afternoons are hectic”, but that is no excuse to go about this work mechanically.

Around 40 people are at work in this room; every other caller is fraught with extreme anxiety, and so, as Gladston puts it, it is necessary to listen to the heartbeat behind the voice.

Gladston, a faculty with the Department of Social Work, Loyola College, has already handled 15 calls that day, besides overseeing the operations at the tele-counselling centre.

One call is from the caregiver of an elderly woman admitted in a hospital, and amidst the uncertainty, she finds it difficult to take food normally.

“The lady has lost her sense of taste and is not comfortable in the new environment. I spoke to her, and we discussed life, family, her concerns. Besides some reassurance, I told her why it is absolutely essential for her to eat healthy,” says Gladston, who focuses on offering psycho-social support to the COVID-hit.

Along with his wife Florina, Gladston established the tele-counselling centre for GCC last year, putting together a team comprising healthcare professionals, social-work students and government officials to assist people on any COVID-related queries. After handling around four lakh calls, in December, when cases in Chennai dropped significantly, the centre wound up.

Back in action

Mid-April this year, they resumed the services. These rooms — which function from Amma Maligai and Ripon Building — are accommodating more volunteers, as the need for them has risen manifold.

These control rooms are operated round-the-clock, with the volunteers taking turns to execute different tasks, working on three shifts – 8 a.m. to 2.30 p.m.; 1.30 p.m. to 8 p.m.; and then, through the night, there are six people at work.

The scope of the control rooms have expanded considerably to address various aspects of the health crisis since their institution on March 28, 2020.

They take stock of cases in Chennai, undertake contact tracing, clarify nagging doubts and offer psycho-social support.

“We began with 40 volunteers last year and it has grown to 80 now,” he says.

You can be a volunteer
  • During the lockdown last year, Arun Aloysius Mahesh, a rehabilitation social worker, first signed up to volunteer for the GCC Tele-Counselling Centre.
  • “Lockdown was a tough period for those with disabilities and their caregivers. Many could not take their children for therapy, some struggled to find hospital beds, so when I saw a post seeking volunteers, I decided I should reach out to many more people with the knowledge I have,” says Mahesh, a parent of two young adults with disability.
  • Between June and August, Mahesh supported the tele-counselling centre by volunteering from home. Recently, he rejoined the army of volunteers operating from Ripon Building. “Besides answering COVID-related queries, I tutor caregivers of the disabled on how to adapt to the current challenges,” says Mahesh.
  • The tele-counselling centre is looking for more volunteers to help them. Potential volunteers would however have to go through a selection process.
  • “When we were establishing the centre last year, we put out a post in social-workers’ groups and had an elaborate interview process, found the person’s interest and got a consent form signed before enrolling them,” says Florina.
  • One of the prerequisites for volunteering with the Centre is that the person must have taking the vaccine.
  • To volunteer, email

Besides, there are more than 180 “WFH volunteers” who check on the health of those who are in home quarantine and those who have been discharged from hospitals following treatment.

New additions

This time, the control rooms witness a massive number of calls from those seeking admission in hospitals or for oxygen.

G. Siva Kumar, in-charge of the centre, says more doctors have been roped in to offer tele-medicine support.

“Last year, we had just two doctors; currently there are 20,” says Siva Kumar. He says many processes have become more streamlined based on lessons learnt from situations experienced during the first wave.

“We have a team handling emergency calls like oxygen supply in Chennai,” he says.

Florina points out that this time they are placing considerable emphasis on documenting data relating to callers, in Excel sheets.

“This data will serve as a ready reference,” says Florina.

The volunteer orientation exercise has been made more effective by the wealth of insights gleaned from situations experienced from the first wave of the pandemic, she says.

A new set of volunteers have been roped in to work at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, where they provide patient support, help with admission and counselling. “Our volunteers are assisting 80 to 90 patients at GH every day,” says Gladston.

Inside the rooms

What is the life like inside the control rooms? Gladston puts it this way: Work begins every day but does not end. There rooms ring with calls non-stop.

Many people call the control room just for a bit of reassurance.

Florina remarks that a sense of being in a war is palpable in the room, and on what makes it all meaningful: “We are not just answering calls but saving lives.”

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 12:16:15 AM |

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