Maharashtra: Good Samaritans help weather the coronavirus storm

On May 6, 2020, as the first wave of Covid-19 hit Mumbai, Tabassum Dhorajiwala , 39, lost her husband, Ahmed
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Published on May 01, 2021 11:28 PM IST
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ByPriyanka Sahoo, Shreya Bhandary and Neha Tripathi, Mumbai

On May 6, 2020, as the first wave of Covid-19 hit Mumbai, Tabassum Dhorajiwala , 39, lost her husband, Ahmed. A positive Covid test report – no hospital admitted him without it – took too long to arrive due to the same backlog that Mumbai faces even now, and in the meantime, his condition deteriorated. Dhorajiwala was devastated, but of this loss, a resolve was born.

“The struggle to find the right resources at the right time eventually cost me my husband’s life, so that very day I decided to help whomever I can with resources,” said Dhorajiwala, a resident of Mohammad Ali Road.

On May 24 last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. What followed was one of the world’s longest (68 days) and strictest lockdowns (even road transportation was not allowed in its initial phases) that epidemiologists largely agree went a long way to arrest the spread of the pandemic on the lockdown. However, millions of migrant workers were affected in Mumbai and other urban centres; many returned to their hometowns in northern India, as they lost earnings and homes.

This year, as cases began to spike in Maharashtra – between 18-31 March, the state drove 60% of them - the city began to run short of oxygen and beds. Social media was replete with pleas of people seeking beds, as the city ran out of critical infrastructure.

When Rajesh P (name changed) needed help with admission to a hospital and oxygen, a local volunteer group - Choti Si Asha group put together a list of doctor contacts from hospitals across South Mumbai. “The aim was to get in touch with a doctor whenever we need help. After my husband passed away, I stayed in touch with these doctors and now, whenever people need help with hospital beds or oxygen, we reach out to these doctors and other officials and find out how we can help those in need,” she said.

In May last year, Dhorajiwala started working with Choti Si Asha to distribute ration kits to people in need. They called it NESH, or No one ever sleeps hungry and it catered to people across Mumbai whose income source had dried up due to the lockdown. Between May and July, the group distributed as many as 80,000 packages. This year, she is volunteering to find oxygen tanks for those affected with Covid-19.

Ronita Ghosh, 40, moved to Pune in August last year and started a customised catering service called Jikoni Foods. In the past 10 days, Ghosh’s kitchen has been busy preparing khichdi to distribute to frontline workers, patients and relatives outside Sassoon General Hospital.

Up at 7am, Ghosh soaks anywhere between 10 to 12 kilos of rice and lentils, cleans and cuts vegetables, assisted by a team of three staff members. By noon, 500 boxes of khichdi are ready. Around 20 volunteers, whom Ghosh met through social media, help with packing and delivering the food. What started as a small initiative with 50 boxes has now grown into a reliable food service network for those sitting in the waiting rooms of the hospital hopeful to get their relatives admitted.

“The packets are for anyone hungry,” said Ghosh, who is now known as “dabba didi” by those at the hospital. All of her food boxes are biodegradable, and spices and rotis procured from home entrepreneurs.

Social media has emerged as an important network for spreading information about available resources for those in need of testing facilities, or hospitals where beds, ventilators and oxygen supply are still available. A host of volunteers are helping people with the right leads.

One among them is Shatakshi, a 20-year-old student from the Mithibai College in Vile Parle who only goes by one name, who is verifying leads and passing on information to people over social media platforms, Twitter and Instagram.

When her grandmother was ill and needed immediate hospitalisation, the family couldn’t find a bed as the hospitals in Bihar, her home state, were full. The leads available on social media were too confusing and the family did not have the time to verify these leads. On April 15, Satakshi’s grandmother passed away.

Satakshi and a group of friends from her college wanted to ensure that others wouldn’t have to go through the same thing. “I came up with this idea after I couldn’t do anything for my grandmother and we lost her. My friend and I call up hospitals in Mumbai, Gujarat, Bihar daily and prepare data in an excel sheet and upload it on our Twitter and Instagram accounts,” she said.

“If I have verified it personally, then I upload the tweet mentioning my name and time and date of verification for people’s ease along with #SoS tag,” she said.

Social media has also helped fund Ghosh’s khichdi dabba initiative: her customers send amounts ranging from 100 to 1,000 which she uses to buy raw materials for the food and eco-friendly packaging material. “I intend to continue this meal service to those at Sassoon Hospital even after the pandemic,” she said.

Not everyone is on social media, but that hasn’t stopped them from helping out. When a close friend residing in the same residential complex tested positive for Covid-19 and struggled to manage the cooking all by themselves, Hemant Shah got together with his family and started a tiffin service for the neighbour. Now, they’re catering to 6 to 10 families in their locality of Goregaon west.

The banking professional from Goregaon, his wife and daughter-in-law Krishna, deliver home-cooked food to people till 7.30pm every day. The meal includes chapatti, a vegetable, dal, rice, salad and buttermilk. Shah’s driver uses the family car to make deliveries and the Shahs don’t take any money for it. “As of now less traffic allows faster delivery, hence we can deliver the food in 10 minutes,” he said. Their volunteer efforts have spread through word of mouth, and the Shahs often get calls or texts seeking their help.

As the pandemic takes a toll on the mental health of people, professionals are offering free counselling services online. A group of research scholars with a background in psychology, social work and medicine is one such volunteering initiative.

Sanket Shirsat, an alumnus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, who is currently pursuing a PhD from the Department of Social Work, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, launched a campaign last Saturday to provide free counselling services in vernacular languages such as Gujarati, Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi.

“We’re living in a time of uncertainty, and many people are feeling stressed, anxious and panicked. We’ve received close to 20 calls so far. There’s distress over workload, anxiety over the new virus strain, people laid off from work are depressed. The pandemic has posed a variety of triggers; people unable to switch to new jobs; some are stuck in abusive households. We listen to people and help them develop coping mechanisms,” said Shirsat, founding member of the Affirmative Actions for Inclusive Foundation, which he started with PhD colleagues from various institutes.

The Foundation was set up last August when Shirsat and his colleagues distributed dry ration, protective gear, food and clothes in many villages of Maharashtra. Even as this work continues, the foundation has brought together around 30 students (all from psychology and social work courses) from across the country to offer the free counselling service. Contact details have been shared on all social media platforms.

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