Covid-19: Where relief falls short, groups of volunteers step in, plug gaps
A 72-year-old diabetic, Utpal Basumallik , was taken to a quarantine facility and discharged nine days later. The experience was not harrowing for the senior citizen as he was looked after the whole time. But when he returned home, he did not have supplies. On reading about the old man’s ordeal, Pamul Joshi, a 32-year old marketing strategist, dropped off supplies at his place the next day.Updated: Apr 09, 2020 16:57 IST
Utpal Basumallik was on one of the last international flights to land in India, arriving in Kolkata on March 19 from New Jersey with a stopover in Abu Dhabi, three days before India suspended all inbound flights to stop the spread of the coronavirus infection (Covid-19).
Basumallik, a 72-year-old diabetic, was taken to a quarantine facility and discharged nine days later with a certificate that bore the medical superintendent’s signature. None of this was harrowing for Basumallik who, together with some other senior citizens, made a video thanking the government for taking such good care of them.
It was only when he reached his four-storey building on Bangur Avenue — where he was asked to spend the remaining five days of his quarantine — that his ordeal began. Basumallik didn’t have any supplies at home. Being under home quarantine, he couldn’t step out to buy them. And his neighbours didn’t even want him in the building.
“I was totally exhausted,” Basumallik recounted. He had just lugged two large suitcases up the stairs — he lives on the top floor and the building doesn’t have an elevator. “I called my daughter and after hearing my ordeal, she started crying.”
That same night, Pamul Joshi, a 32-year old marketing strategist, read about Basumallik’s experience on the Facebook page of a week-old volunteers group called Caremongers India, after Basumallik’s daughter put up a post on it seeking help.
A resident of Kakurgachi, around four kilometres from Bangur Avenue, Joshi dropped off supplies, including vegetables, yogurt, a few groceries and water bottles at Basumallik’s apartment the following day.
“I call him everyday to check on how he’s doing so he doesn’t feel alone,” Joshi said.
As the coronavirus disease epidemic spreads, an army of volunteers in the form of groups like Caremongers has stepped up to come to the aid of people in need like Basumallik in a humanitarian endeavour supplementing the relief efforts of government institutions and established non-government organisations.
They are volunteering their time, energy and money to help those who are helpless in the face of the global pandemic that has infected over 1 million people worldwide. On crowdfunding platform Ketto, a microsite has come up only for Covid-19 campaigns. Over Rs 3 crore has been raised since the first campaign was launched on March 6.
Caremongers’s founder, Bengaluru-based digital marketing professional Mahita Nagaraj, was running some errands on March 15 when she received a call from a friend in Birmingham, England, requesting her to deliver medicines to her elderly parents’ home in the city.
That’s when it struck Nagaraj, 38, that the pandemic sweeping the world would hit vulnerable sections like the elderly harder than the others. On March 17, she made a Facebook group, Caremongers India. The idea was simple: Not everyone would be able to run errands to buy supplies like groceries or medicines, so connect them to people who would be willing to help them do so.
“I can proudly say that there’s not one state or Union territory in the country where a person hasn’t signed up as a volunteer,” said Nagaraj. The network has grown to over 10,000 volunteers, who have organised themselves into Whatsapp groups based on the states they are in. Each volunteer is given responsibility for two people in need, based on their locations.
A core team of eight, including Nagaraj, have divided up responsibilities among themselves: managing the requests being made on Facebook, answering the helpline, passing on requests to the relevant Whatsapp group, creating a database of vendors, and, finally, managing requests with city coordinators appointed in each group.
“We’ve moved into a weekly schedule,” Nagaraj said. “We’re creating a database of people who need our help, and now our volunteers will call in on them once a week to find out their weekly requirements, groceries, essentials, medicines, purchase it on their behalf and make sure the delivery happens.”
The person availing of this service would be required to pay for the supplies. The idea, Nagaraj said, is to promote physical distancing, prevent panic buying and hoarding as well as ensure that volunteers don’t step out more than once a week, given the national lockdown.
Filling the gaps
On March 24, the prime minister announced a 21-day national lockdown that was to go into effect the following day, saying this was the only way to check the spread of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that has infected over 1,000 people in India.
Even before the lockdown was announced, several states announced relief packages: Uttar Pradesh promised to pay Rs 1,000 each to 3.5 million labourers, and a month’s free household rations to 16 million construction workers; Kerala offered loans and advance payment of pension in its Rs 20,000 crore package; Delhi announced free rations to 7.2 million beneficiaries, among other things; Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bihar also promised free rations to beneficiaries of welfare schemes.
Volunteers are trying to address the needs of communities that are not being met by the state.
Jatin Kumar, 23, is one of 200 Gurugram residents who signed uplast week to volunteer for the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram, which has identified more than 50 spots in the city, such as in Sectors 9, 37 and 56, where people are in need of food supplies or cooked food.
Kumar has been dropping off bundles comprising five kilograms of rice, one kilogram of lentils, a litre of oil, a kilogram of salt and sugar each, and 100 grams of turmeric, cumin and chilli powder, at the doorsteps of the needy since March.
Kumar, whose work in a UK-based firm starts only after 8pm, admits his parents are worried, but he is taking whatever precaution he can: he wears a face mask, he maintains a physical distance from everyone he meets, and he regularly sanitises his hands.
Intekhab Alam, 41, runs a mechanic’s shop in Dwarka’s Sector 7, and lives in Mohan Garden, a low income group neighbourhood in Uttam Nagar. On March 25, he and an associate began to collect money to buy food for other residents of his area, many of whom are daily wagers.
Anhad, a Delhi-based NGO to which Alam belongs, sent out a call for funds: hoping to raise Rs 87,500 to buy supplies that would be distributed among 100 people during the lockdown. Within a day, Alam said, Rs 1.8 lakh was raised The money was used to buy rice, lentils and flour, which they began to distribute daily starting on March 26.
“The response to our call was overwhelming and we collected more than we asked for... We now have requests from over 900 families from various parts of Delhi and other states as well... the crisis is humongous,” said Shabnam Hashmi, who too is a member of Anhad.
Alam and his team also prepare packages of rice, lentils, oil, milk powder and soap for rickshaw pullers living in Palam Extension. “They have no ration cards, because they’re migrants. So they can’t get any of the government’s rations,” he said.
There is one thing that Alam wishes he could add in that package, and distribute to the people queuing up for the supplies in Mohan Garden: face masks. “We tried looking everywhere, but we couldn’t find any,” he said.
To counter a similar shortage in Punjab, several families — and even members of self-help groups engaged in Phulkari embroidery — in Patiala have taken to making face masks using triple-layer cloth specific to such masks.
Matisha Bansal, 25, a lawyer, together with other members of her family, including her father, Ambrish, who is a member of the Patiala Industry Association, has been making masks using the special triple-layer cloth. “We have stitched 6,000 masks in the last five days. I am doing my bit to fight against Covid-19,” she said.
The material, bought by the association, was supplied by the local administration.
“Self-help groups (engaged n Phulkari embroidery) have made 100,000 masks. Everyone, including businessmen (and their families), are contributing,” deputy commissioner Kumar Amit said.
In Baripada town of Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, Nirupama Sahoo has converted her tutorial institute into a mask-making unit — the masks are made of simple cotton. “I have already distributed more than 3,000 masks among people living on the streets, and I’ve also made them aware of the importance of self-hygiene,” Sahoo said.
In Hyderabad, Khalida Parveen, a pharmacist from the Mehdipatnam area, has been cooking 25 kilograms of vegetable tahari — a preparation of rice, tomato, and spices — every morning since March 22, the day after Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao announced a lockdown of the state.
Friends and relatives distribute the meal to the needy -- a homeless person or a daily wager or a migrant making his way back home.“My family is helping me, and so are many Hindu families in my neighbourhood. My sons and their friends have been supplying these food packets to different places every day,” Parveen said.
-- With inputs from Dhamini Ratnam, Archana Mishra, Vishal Rambani, Debabrata Mohanty, Srinivasa Rao Apparasu