A Pandemic Year for Women: Lessons for a rural healthcare startup in Bihar during the COVID-19 crisis
This essay is from our International Women’s Day 2021 series, about women who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, professionals, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time — over this pandemic year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A UN report from September 2020 on the economic toll of COVID-19 on women, notes that “the impacts of crises are never gender-neutral”. The report delves into the many ways women have been disproportionately affected, financially, by the ongoing pandemic: For instance, industries that predominantly employ women have been worst-affected; women’s paid labour and women-run businesses are hardest hit, and the gender poverty gap is projected to widen.
The impacts of the crisis, however, go far beyond the economic. News stories and surveys have looked at how women are bearing the brunt of childcare and household chores while they work full-time remotely. Isolation and confinement have meant that cases of violence against women are on the rise.
While the coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdowns have been especially hard on women, there are also many stories of resilience, courage and hope that have emerged in these times.
On International Women's Day 2021, we’re launching a series called ‘A Pandemic Year for Women’. These essays have been written by women with varying experiences of the past year, who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, healthcare workers, community outreach professionals and entrepreneurs, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time.
These first-hand accounts do not look away from the costs of the crisis, but they look beyond too: to the future, to what is possible, to what still remains to be (and must be) done.
Read the essays here on Firstpost, in ‘A Pandemic Year for Women’.
Life is a series of milestones.
I always wondered what my milestones were. They were not different from any other ordinary, ambitious, middle-class girl’s: a degree, a job in Infosys through campus interviews, early promotions, an opportunity to work in the US on a client project, buying a house for my parents. If someone would have asked, this was pretty much my answer — until 2016.
If you ask me about my milestones now, the mature me would say: losing my mother to cancer in 2016, opting for social entrepreneurship over a stable job, choosing a tribal area in Bihar rather than London in 2017, struggling to make a rural healthcare startup sustainable in 2018, starting a nonprofit, becoming a mental health counsellor in 2019, being a finalist in the National Startup India awards in 2020, and how can I forget — surviving a COVID infection.
I remember celebrating Holi in our small hospital with everyone. The words lockdown, pandemic or COVID were not much in our lives then. We had a blast, lots of good food. That’s my last normal, happy memory before COVID. The lockdown was tough in every way. On the one hand, I was worried for my diabetic father and sister back in Pune; on the other, I was worried for myself and Dr Gaurav and all the other staff we worked with since COVID testing kits were not available initially in our area, forget ventilators.
I could see that the year was going to be financially tough for our hospital. There was no option to lay off employees: firstly, because we had to be ready to serve, being the only 24/7 hospital with ICU and oxygen support for emergencies; and secondly, all of our employees hailed from poor socio-economic backgrounds, we just could not have let them go in the middle of a pandemic. That would defy the purpose of why we started this self-sustainable business in the first place.
Wearing a mask at all times was difficult due to the blistering summer. It was so tough to train the mind to maintain social distancing. Every day came with new wave of sadness and frightening news, but there was no time to think. We quickly made the required changes in the hospital, started free online consultations, and also started home delivering free medicines to the remotest villages in the region.
I quickly formed another small team, and taking all the necessary permissions, we began distributing hygiene kits in the tribal villages. We would start our day early, around 7 am, to make the kits (masks, soaps, sanitary pads, detergent etc). We would go door-to-door, explain about COVID, give the hygiene kits; the children were thrilled to wear masks.
A month went by. The harvest season set in, the lockdown was in progress. The COVID situation was becoming scarier, and here we were, going from one village to the other, crossing jungles to distribute the kits. And then one day, I met her.
We had just handed her child one of the kits, and Dr Gaurav from our team was explaining how and why to use a mask. She listened attentively, then replied: “Khaye ke kooch haiye naikhe, theek kaini ki ee jaabi laga dele baani muuh par (There is nothing to eat, good that you gave us these masks to close the mouth also).”
It hurt, deeply. Her name was Kalavati; she was a mother-of-four from the Musahar comunity, a daily wage worker on someone else’s farm. Her husband was in Punjab, unable to return home. Kalavati opened my eyes to the harsh reality, a brave women showing us the mirror no one had so far. The feeling of making a difference was replaced by helplessness again.
As a woman who ran a 30-bed hospital in this area, I had no clue that three meals a day was a privilege in this pandemic. Losing hope and feeling bad was not enough. As soon as we crossed the jungle on the way back and I regained cellphone connectivity, I called and ordered dry rations. We made sure to include lentils, vegetables, oil and turmeric, not just rice, making 50 packets that night. The woman who gave voice to her community that day deserved the first packet. She helped us reach out to some more needy homes in subsequent days.
This continued for quite a while. A few friends got to know, they pitched in, and a kindness chain reaction let us help around 500 women who carried the burden of survival during this pandemic single-handedly. Their resilience taught us more than we taught them about COVID.
These women had a lot to handle — a husband with a drinking problem, earning members losing their jobs, insufficient daily wages, fewer hands to earn but a lot more mouths to feed, the daily household chores involving physical hard work. When I talked to them, I came across a lot of complaints of having headaches for years, feeling anxious, being unable to sleep, feeling sad or at times suicidal. And all these were exacerbated during the pandemic. Their mental health had taken a toll long before the pandemic and they did not seek any help. Common for women to prioritise everyone else but themselves, isn’t it?
This pandemic had made us realise that mental health will probably never be addressed in this part of the world due to lack of knowledge and/or cultural beliefs. Keeping aside all limitations, Dr Gaurav and I decided to start a community mental health programme in the middle of the lockdown. It was already too late, we felt.
We formed a team with young women from the community (who used to teach in private schools and lost their jobs due to the pandemic), and trained them in surveying for severe and common mental health issues with a simple questionnaire.
We found 134 patients in 1,120 families, out of which we are treating 92 patients currently and providing free medication and therapy. We have had successes and failures at the same time. Rescuing patients from ojhas and babas, and helping families to understand illnesses and treatment options, was one of our toughest tasks, but we learnt not to give up.
I am alive after being infected with COVID-19 but that’s not the highlight of my 2020. The isolation was mentally tough, and the constant fear that anything might happen was haunting. I had not told my family in order to save them the anxiety. But my team kept me engaged and distracted with planning community work. I was lucky to have a team who did not stop the work when I was down with COVID.
My 2020 highlight was that I have found a purpose in life. When Anita, who has been struggling with schizophrenia for the last 20 years, talks to me and offers me a place to sit; when Fulmati smiles after struggling from depression for over three years and goes back to work; when Sucheta tells me her palpitations and scary dreams are lessening day-by-day, I feel this pandemic was a blessing in disguise.
There are so many like Anita, Fulmati, Sucheta who are still unreached. The resolve to do more has never been stronger.
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