Coronavirus Outbreak: Community-oriented initiatives, marked by efficiency and generosity, are helping society's most vulnerable
From Kanaga Varathan's team in Tamil Nadu working for the trans community, to the support Caremongers have offered to the disabled and elderly, initiatives led by ordinary people have helped thousands to survive the lockdown put in place to counter the coronavirus pandemic
Every time the world is hit by a disaster of any sort, there arises an army of people who step forward to help those in need. These people conceptualise, implement and execute initiatives, and encourage others to come forward and make a difference in those lives that we would never give a second thought to, on a regular day.
These are people like IT professional Kanaga Varathan from Tamil Nadu, who has worked extensively with the transgender community in the region. During the recent Chennai floods, Kanaga was part of a team that worked towards providing groceries to the trans community. “We helped around 90 people then and wanted to do the same now," she says of the efforts they wanted to undertake during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, "But the lock-down was announced suddenly and grocery distribution became impossible.”
The on-ground team, working across the state, decided to deposit funds collected in accounts, to help the community monetarily. “This idea enabled us to reach out to more people; we are now providing around 200 people with Rs 3500 each, to meet their expenses. These are people who work menial jobs, and the desperation to earn can mean that they step out looking for work in crowded places like a petrol bunk or a market that is functioning. This money, deposited in their accounts, gives them a means to survive and keeps them off the road,” Kanaga explains. Each recipient is vetted to ensure the money is going to deserving individuals. Kanaga says it warms her heart when some people say that they have received the help they need from NGOs and ask for that the assistance be given to those who may need it more.
Chandni Asnani, who has been on a sabbatical in her hometown of Bhopal, too, realised that there are people who need support, since they can no longer step out to work. “It was when my mother asked our house help to stop coming and to stock her home that I realised stocking up is not something daily wagers can do,” she says. Chandni spearheads the Feeding Bhopal initiative with a core team of eight people. She speaks emphatically when she says that these people should not be indiscriminately labelled as poor, rather they are daily wagers and migrant workers who are unable to earn right now.
The core team, which includes a doctor, has been trained in taking the necessary safety measures when heading out to distribute groceries to around 350 families in bastis around New Bhopal. Families are provided with a week’s worth of essentials, and the aim is to soon include sanitary napkins in the package provided. This group of young people has also taken it upon themselves to feed the stray animals that they find along the way. On their Instagram handle, the group has organised one-hour shows featuring local artists, all of whom perform and encourage people to donate to the cause. “Lack of availability of essentials is the problem we face. Shops either don’t have stocks or have hiked up prices. While one supplier does give us goods at regular rates, we are looking for more such businesses to come forward," Chandni says.
While some are hoping for establishments to come forward, others are looking at conscious and aware individuals for support, such as the waste pickers, dumpyard dwellers, the homeless and migrating workers that the Dalith Bahujan Resource Center, India (DBRC) take cares of. These people, scattered around Guntur and Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, have been receiving dry rations and hot meals organised by the DBRC since 1992.
“We are also trying to provide drinking water which is scarce in the region, considering the intense heat which is on the rise right now,” says Samuel Anil Kumar. The DBRC also helps with procuring documents. Waste pickers often belong to migrating tribes and do not have any documentation. The volunteers work with municipality officers to get them Aadhaar and ration cards. Currently, ration cards are being procured on priority, so that these people can avail the benefits of the food distribution system. The DBRC has also started awareness programs on COVID-19 , with a focus on hygiene, sanitation and social distancing.
A productive approach to social distancing is what the people at Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai have undertaken. Maker’s Asylum is a community space for creators, with equipment for woodwork, electronics, metal work, laser cutting and 3D printers, which people use to create a range of products. “On 24 March, when the lockdown was announced, Vaibhav Chhabra (founder) and Narender Sharma (lab head) decided to move into Maker’s Asylum so that they could work on what they do best — create,” says Richa Shrivastava, managing partner at the space.
They have created face shields for medical professionals — personal protective equipment (PPE) devices that are used for protection from bodily fluids, from splashes, spray and spatter. With the lockdown, the need was to create these locally and distribute them. “We have run through 17 iterations of the piece and found that using laser cutters gives us the ability to make one every three minutes, and 500 pieces a day, at the cost of Rs 50 per piece," Richa explains.
Their first shipment saw 500 shields reach Bengaluru and Hyderabad. The trio has made the design for the face shield available online, for all maker spaces across the country to use freely and locally to create and distribute shields to the first line of defence in this battle against the coronavirus – our medical professionals.
Madhumita Kalauny, who spearheads HUG based in Bengaluru, says that food is the first line of security to break down in a crisis. Having worked for years now for people living in slums around LR Nagar near the National Games Village, Madhumita speaks of how the supply of hot food, left over from corporate lunches, to the slum was stopped during the lockdown. People had not eaten for a day and a half. “Nearly 1500 people here had to stop their daily wage jobs, and there were not enough groceries to go around,” she explains.
HUG put out a public request for the HUG pack, which consists of five essential items to help a family through a fortnight, priced at Rs 500 (it’s easy for people to contribute in multiples, says Madhumita). Over two days, they were able to raise enough money for 4000 kilos of rations. Various measures to ensure safety are adhered to during the distribution process, to ensure that social distancing is maintained.
Word of mouth has helped identify areas in the city that require these essentials, from slums to areas with street dwellers and folks from the LGBT+ community. With the aid of volunteers from across the country, HUG has been able to make a difference in seven cities: Hyderabad, Pune, Bhopal, Delhi and Indore, among others.
Another movement that has made a pan-India impact is that of Caremongers. Mahita Nagaraj didn’t realise the difference she was going to make in people’s lives when she first helped the ailing parents of a friend based abroad, by helping them get medication. One thing led to another and a single post on Facebook saw Mahita begin Caremongers, a community of volunteers across the country who fulfill requests for help of any kind from people who truly need it.
An aid initiative veteran, Mahita was quick to think on her feet and was able to get a system up and running in a short period of time. From requests for senior citizens to be taken for medical treatments, to requests for groceries and medication, to even helping a wheelchair-bound person service his wheelchair during the lockdown, Caremongers has fulfilled over 600 requests across the country since 20 March, with the start of its helpline.
While some of these initiatives work through the year, many have spontaneously begun and structured themselves so as to care for those who are vulnerable and need support. What is most heartening is that these initiatives are but a drop in the ocean of goodwill on display during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
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