HT Salutes: Everyday heroes of the pandemic | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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HT Salutes: Everyday heroes of the pandemic

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Apr 11, 2020 04:37 AM IST

Championing resilience: As the country grapples with Covid-19, thousands of Indians are finding ways to help the vulnerable by sewing masks, holding donation drives, feeding stray dogs and countering fake news.

There is little to be cheerful about in a world battered by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The global tally stands at 1,447,471 confirmed cases and 83,401 deaths even as the pandemic peaks in one country after the other. In India, the news is becoming grimmer: infections, fatalities, shortages. As the numbers go up of people infected (5,274), dead (165), hospitalised and quarantined, staying home is seen as the only way India’s citizens can save others, but not everyone is convinced this is all they can do to help.

A man feeds pigeons during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of novel coronavirus pandemic, in Bengaluru.(Photo: PTI)
A man feeds pigeons during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of novel coronavirus pandemic, in Bengaluru.(Photo: PTI)

So, while they follow the official rules and restrictions, thousands of Indians are finding ways to help those who are more vulnerable. They are publishing data and insights, launching donation drives, sewing masks, video-chatting with senior citizens, mobilising support for migrant workers, countering fake news and fake science, feeding stray dogs, and making viral memes to remind people to do the simple things like washing their hands. Meet some of India’s corona volunteers.

Naveen MS, Karnataka Sahaya, Challkere

“Today, we don’t have solution to coronavirus, but we have a solution to the fear and rumours,” says Naveen MS, a civil service aspirant based in Challkere taluka in Chitradurga district of Karnataka. While he worries about the impending damage to the economy from the pandemic, his immediate concern is for people’s “psychology.” In his own town, he says, panic is widespread.

“Minimum people are infected (Karnataka has 181 positive cases so far) but maximum people are fearing. Facts are being manipulated in private WhatsApp groups and prime-time news alike,” he said. In the cities, he points out, people have easy access to verified facts and official information, but not so in the rural areas. “In the villages, no one has a Twitter account, and no one is using Telegram (messenger), so the responsibility is on the educated people such as myself who have access to technology. Even if one person in a village is using Telegram, he can share the right information with the rest of the population.”

In Mid-March, Naveen joined the Telegram group Karnataka Sahaya which was launched by the state information department to circulate official information and counter fake news. The open group has over 21,000 members of whom most are citizen volunteers. “We deal with three kinds of inquiries. There are medical enquiries where people are dropping in to ask if they should be tested in the case of a cough; then there are official enquiries where people ask about rules and restrictions in their areas; and third are basic enquiries about general facts – how many infections, what are the precautions, etc. As laypeople, us volunteers don’t know anything, so our job is to connect doctors and officials who show up in shifts on the group with those who have queries,” he said.

Hundreds of questions are posed and answered on the group every day.

“Do gas cylinders come under essential commodities?”

“When will Covid-19 tests be available for general public in private labs?”

“There are rumors going on about one confirmed case in Koppal. Can I know?”

As an information warrior, one of Naveen’s major tasks is to spot and call out fake news. So far, he says, he and his fellow volunteers have busted a handful: “Jio offering lifetime free recharge for Rs 498. There is a cure for novel coronavirus in a book by Dr Ramesh Gupta. A medicine has been discovered for Covid-19. Russia has unleashed 500 lions on the roads to keep people indoors.”

On Monday, Paramesha C from Kanataka’s Davanagere district posted a query on the Telegram group. He wanted to know if a message he was sent via WhatsApp contained real or fake news. The message alerted recipients that the police would act against anyone posting or forwarding any coronavirus-related update on social media as per a new government mandate. “I wanted to check if it was true before I believed it or forwarded it. I was told it was fake news.”

Naveen thinks it’s equally important to find and share uplifting information about the human battle against the virus. “I collect positive news from around the world and share it with as many people as possible, like China closing down its coronavirus hospitals, doctors in India being successful in treating many cases, a network of Canadian scientists making excellent progress in Covid-19 research, number of cases declining in South Korea.” He says the work has filled him with purpose like never before. “You feel a sense of nationalism, a sense of belonging.”

Anupriya Singh, Corona Warriors, Bahraich

On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a national lockdown, millions of migrant wage labourers employed in urban centres rushed to their villages, but thousands have since found themselves stuck far from home without work or food, or a future plan. On March 26, Anupriya Singh, who lives in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, started a Facebook group to get them help wherever they are. “The first alert we received, just a friend and I, was about a group of migrant workers in a Noida market. They are entirely dependent for their meals on the local carts that sell lunch and dinner for Rs 10 or Rs 15, but as lockdown curfew struck, the carts vanished, and the workers were stranded without any gas cylinders or cooking supplies. A friend drove 50km with food to reach them, explaining to the police every few kilometers that this was an urgent matter.”

Since then, Singh says, the group has grown to 5,000 members who respond to messages posted on the group all day from across India.

“In Surat, 20 labourers are stranded and there is no ration. They are from Ara district of Bihar.”

“Ten labourers stuck in Santacruz, Mumbai. They are from Giridih in Jharkhand. Food is a problem”

“Thirteen people from Hardoi in UP stuck 100 km from Hyderabad in Kandukur.”

Singh says most of the appeals for help are coming from Delhi and Maharashtra, but the problem is nationwide. “We recently heard from a group of migrant workers from Nagaland -- 20 of them. They said they would never have asked someone for help, but they are struggling to find any food. One of our volunteers there got in touch with the local administration which came to their rescue immediately.”

Typically, she says, once they receive an alert from a place, they try to mobile local support in one way or the other. “We are fairly spread out by now, so usually one of us knows someone in local police or administration or political party or NGOs, and irrespective of jurisdiction or affiliation, most of them have been helpful. At times, we are even able to arrange food or medicines for stranded labourers through an individual or shopkeeper near them.”

Stranded in Moradabad after his metal-works factory shut down and the borders closed, daily-wage worker Kamal Saxena ran out of food supplies and cooking gas. “My family is in Bareilly and I am in Moradabad, living alone and waiting to be paid by the factory contractor my pending salary. Last week, I couldn’t leave the house because of lockdown and had nothing to eat. I had no money either. My daughter found out about this Facebook group and gave me a number to call. I called it and gave my details, and some hours later, someone came by with a bag of groceries -- atta, daal, oil, chawal, salt.”

The volume of posts on the Facebook group is going up steadily. “There is a lot of panic among migrant workers. Not each of them needs to rush home, but many are fleeing because they believe this is a city virus and it will consume everyone who remains in the cities,” she said. Currently, Singh says her volunteer shift begins at 8am and ends at 2am the next day. She has made her peace with it: “We live in India. In this country, people stand up for each other.”

Megha Jose, The Pawsome People Project, Coimbatore

Just days into the social isolation sparked off by Covid-19, Megha Jose and her team noticed that many of Coimbatore’s estimated 30,000 street dogs were leaving the streets. “They began to migrate kilometers beyond their areas and organised into groups – possibly to hunt for food. As people stopped coming out to feed them and shops and restaurants closed, a lot of dogs were starving. Street dogs are known to hover in the vicinity of open garbage, but now they were literally in the middle of it,” said Jose, who runs a volunteer-driven initiative for the street dogs of Coimbatore called the Pawsome People Project.

The team also began to hear from people anxious about their proximity with their own pets as rumours about dogs being carriers of the coronavirus went viral on social media. “A lot of people were calling to say, ‘we don’t know if we can keep the dog around while we have old people living in the same house.’ They were also concerned about their residential societies banning dogs. We saw some purebred dogs, including a Pitbull and a Doberman, left in the streets,” Jose said.

Down to 40 volunteers from their usual strength of 150, the Pawsome people reacted to the emergency by doing what they do: finding street dogs and feeding them. “People were sending us messages whenever they saw a group of dogs at a location, and we would go out with food and follow their directions. The first few days, some of us were stopped several times by the police because of the curfew, but then we got 40 passes from the district magistrate who had heard about our hurdles and asked us to get in touch,” Jose said.

Weeks into the routine, their popular social media pages display a wide range of photos and videos of volunteers feeding the dogs whatever was available, from idlis to packaged treats. “We have put up memes and stories saying, ‘look at us, we have been hanging out with the dogs for a month now, and nothing has happened to us’.” Seeing these visuals, Jose said, more and more people have been shrugging off the rumors and helping the “streeties.”

Their work at the moment goes beyond feel-good messaging. The Pawsome volunteers also use their wide social media network, including WhatsApp groups, to make people aware of the punishments under the Indian Penal Code for killing, caging, poisoning, and maiming animals. They also regularly file police cases in partnership with the local animal shelter against individuals or housing societies breaking these laws. “The good thing is most of our volunteers are young, so they are not shy to speak their minds,” Jose said.

The results are already showing. “We are hearing back from some people who are saying that they changed their minds about giving up their pets. People are also uploading photos and videos feeding street animals and tagging us in their posts.”

It’s not only the dogs on the streets who are being fed but also goats, cows, and even horses who find themselves abandoned during the lockdown. “Four or five days ago, the volunteer for PN Pudur road went to feed the dogs but before they could even taste the curd-rice, a goat came and ate it all. The dogs didn’t mind; they were quietly watching!”

In Coimbatore, said district collector Thiru K Rajamani, “the street animals have been taken care of by individuals from day one of the lockdown. These animal lovers -- girls and boys both – have been tracking each neighbourhood and making sure that no dog or cat on the street goes hungry.”

Riddhi Mittal, CovidIndia.Org, Bengaluru

On March 11, Riddhi Mittal, a startup entrepreneur based in Bengaluru, had her ‘oh no’ moment with regards to the global spread of coronavirus. She had just read the now-viral Medium article ‘Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now’ by fellow Stanford alumni Tomas Pueyo. “It was a 25-minute read, and I thought I will give it five minutes, but I ended up reading it over and over again,” she said. Mittal spent the following 48 hours researching Covid-19 “like a maniac”.

When she was done, she cleared up her calendar for the next six months and made about 50 phone calls. “To people in startup ecosystem, industry bodies, government, policy community, health tech network,” she said. “I understood how dire the situation is going to become in India.” On March 13, she joined CovidIndia.org, her friend Girish Khera’s all-encompassing tech platform aimed at battling the spread of the coronavirus in India. Spread out over a website, multiple social media channels and partnerships with stakeholders, Covid India aggregates data, builds and reviews tech products, aids sourcing and supply of health equipment, and strategizes with governments and companies. It’s a “100% volunteer effort. Everyone has a day job,” Mittal points out. “Since March 14, when we had 40 volunteers, we have been growing by 200-300 every day. Today we number over 1,000. The volunteers bring such diverse experiences -- some I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams, from election management to social work.”

They start by asking everyone fighting Covid-19 in India the same question: what do you need to know? Bridging the “information asymmetry”, Mittal points out, is central to India’s coronavirus challenge. So their website is designed around providing constantly updated information from multiple sources -- ministry of health and family welfare, Indian Council of Medical Research, state and district governments, individuals (verified by official sources) – about multiple dimensions of the virus’s spread: number of infections and deaths, testing history, state-wise numbers, quarantine capacity, drug availability, ICU beds. Mittal says aggregating data at that scale in India isn’t easy. “We need access to data top down and bottom up. No one right now has the access to data that people need to take decisions in the correct fashion. We get a lot of requests for data: what is the production capacity of mask manufacturers in India, what is the list of pan-India hospitals treating Covid-19 cases, what is the exact need for ventilators in all Covid-19 hospitals. But this data exists in silos. And when you go bottom to top, data quality control is a challenge.”

She says the CovidIndia.org team is doing its best at making the flow of information smoother among governments (central, state, and district), companies and individuals while factoring in their respective concerns and interests. Their methods are complicated, but their goal is simple: “We want to help Indian citizens and Indian government.”

“Governments should work closely with citizens,” said Captain Manivannan, the IAS officer leading Karnataka government’s information department, on volunteer-driven initiatives such as CovidIndia.org. “I am delighted to see them. Those times are gone when the government used to handle everything on its own. In this era of complex issues and need for faster solutions, we need to ramp up the delivery mechanism with the best options we have, government or non government.”

Shivendra Kumar, Dignity Foundation, Delhi-NCR

Kumar and his team of volunteers and coordinators have been spending a lot of time on video communication apps lately. “Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp,” he said. Active in six cities across India, the Dignity Foundation’s mission is to “enable senior citizens lead active lives through easy access to trusted information, opportunities for productive ageing and social support services”. Daily meetups with the members at its physical centres was one of their core activities until Covid-19 struck Indian cities. In Delhi-NCR, where the foundation has 110 senior-citizen members, Kumar says the social distancing rules have led to a “complete lockdown” for them because old age and existing illnesses make them especially vulnerable to infection. Cut off from their social and support networks, many of them face a wide range of worries, from filling up their days to finding groceries and medicines. “No gardens, no roads, no going up to the neighbour for a chat. Those who only had domestic staff find themselves alone with nobody else in the house,” Kumar said. So, while many of the foundation’s volunteers are delivering essential supplies to their houses, some are also helping them socialize over video.

“On Zoom calls with our volunteers and other members, they are showcasing their talents and pastimes. Some sing, some talk about the books they are reading, mainly motivational titles at this time. Some talk about their cooking,” Kumar said. His team is using the video platforms to connect them to the resources they need to carry on with the curfews. “Depending on their need, we have them on video with dieticians, Yoga teachers, doctors. To keep physically active while indoors, we are trying new things. Like teach them yoga postures they can practice while standing or working in the kitchen. Or yoga with meditation or yoga set to songs rather than structured exercises.”

For some of them, Kumar points out, this is the first exposure to live video. “Of our 110 members in Delhi-NCR, 60 have joined us on video calls so far. It hasn’t been easy for some of them. They get frustrated if the connection breaks down. Some had been using 2G handsets so far, so their families are helping them move on to advanced smartphones,” he said. Many are learning fast. “From not using smartphones, some have progressed to leaning how to cook by watching YouTube videos. They like learning things on YouTube -- someone is talking to them while teaching them something. Some are chatting with multiple people at the same time on different screens.”

For 69-year-old Surinder Mohan Sharma, a resident of Safdarjang Enclave, the days are now structured around these Zoom sessions. “We have a yoga session 4-5 days a week with an instructor from Gurugram who teaches 15 of us. I also have individual video calls with the volunteers. A quiz session is coming up later this week to keep us mentally active, and we are also looking forward to our next singing get-together.”

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