April 24, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
As I record this episode, India is in the midst of the devastating second wave of COVID-19. The healthcare system has collapsed. Crematoria are working round the clock as the bodies pile up in snaking lines that reach the roads outside. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, they are running out of wood for cremations and the less said about the availability of hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen, the better. The Union Government has failed us spectacularly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah focusing on the election campaign in West Bengal rather than the health and economic crisis we are facing. It’s like the prime minister is AWOL, choosing to make his presence felt through advertisements and super-spreader rallies instead. In such a situation, common citizens have only each other. And how wonderfully they have stepped up. From launching awareness campaigns and real-time dashboards on availability of hospital beds to free meals for the afflicted and offers of grocery shopping and delivery of essentials for the aged, it’s ordinary citizens who are saving the day. As it is in every crisis, it’s the common men and women who are showing the courage to make a difference.
As I record this episode, India is registering more than 2 lakh cases a day – and that number is almost certainly an underestimation because we aren’t testing enough and many states are under-reporting cases. As I said, there is a shortage of hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen, critical drugs and even vaccines – no matter what the Union Government would have you believe. It’s as if the government has checked out while you and I deal with the greatest economic and healthcare challenge of our era.
So, who’s stepping up? Ordinary people. Like you and me. This crisis has brought out the best in many of us.
From Srinagar to Salem and from Solapur to Shillong, hundreds of thousands have offered assistance in procuring the anti-viral drug Remdesivir, oxygen cylinders and plasma donors. Many have offered to go grocery shopping for affected families and senior citizens. Others are offering homemade meals delivered to the doorstep. In fact, there’s a term coined for them – ‘tiffin samaritans’.
Volunteer groups and social organisations, meanwhile, have fanned out to help stranded migrant labourers and senior citizens living alone. In Pune, for example, the NGO Sarhad is providing 5,000 free meals a day to sanitary workers and poor students. The Annapurna Group, meanwhile, is helping daily wage workers with free meals. In Mumbai, the Khaana Chahiye citizens’ initiative is serving at least 5,000 meals a day and distributing rations to the needy. Meanwhile, some are putting together meals for ambulance drivers, policemen on duty and other frontline workers.
Citizens have set up WhatsApp groups on which seniors and the differently abled can list their requirement of essentials. Volunteers then deliver those essentials to them. Hundreds of volunteers are signing up for this.
To help deal with the oxygen shortage, several mosques in Mumbai have begun supplying oxygen cylinders to COVID-19 patients along with kits that can be fitted at home. This is being done free of charge and irrespective of religion or caste. At last count, more than 1,000 cylinders had been distributed. Mosques, the organisers argued, should be used for more than prayer five times a day. I couldn’t agree more.
Social media has been a great enabler of all these citizen initiatives.
People swung into action as timelines began overflowing with pleas for help. Those who could not get through to helpline numbers turned to platforms like Twitter. And help was forthcoming. For instance, many doctors offered their services free of cost – some through online consultations.
It was on Twitter that the full extent of the crisis came to light. As the government continued to claim that things were under control, it became clear from social media posts that hospitals were overflowing and people were perishing by the hundreds. It was here that the under-reporting of cases and deaths by states like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh saw the light of day.
So, what can you do to help? Here are a few suggestions:
- Check in on senior citizens in your building and neighbourhood. A lockdown can be particularly stressful for them. A simple phone call every day will help. If you can drop in on them and help with things they require, do so and don’t forget to maintain safety measures
- Reach out to people in self isolation. Other than dealing with the virus, many patients suffer from mental health issues arising from worry and loneliness. Again, conversations help
- Volunteer your time and effort. Every city, every neighbourhood has a citizen’s initiative. Other than funds, they need hands and legs to carry out their work
- Counter efforts to divide society. For too long have we tolerated the effort to spread hatred. This is no time for societal fissures. Push back against communalism and misinformation campaigns
- Combat the misinformation spreading online and through Whatsapp groups. Verify before believing things and call out fake news. Report it to the platforms you see it on
- Lastly, you are a unit of society. If each one of us takes adequate precautions and cuts out risky behaviour, we can flatten the curve
This crisis shouldn’t be a wasted one – we must use it as a launchpad to build a better country with healthcare for all, social security through minimum income guarantees and by keeping the environment at the core of development. We need systemic solutions to the problems amplified by the pandemic.
In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep our societal connections strong and offer a model of the behaviour we want our leaders to adopt.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit Allindiansmatter.in for more columns, videos and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Catch you again soon.