At the heart of a crisis

Topics Coronavirus | ONGC | Lockdown

“Crisis doesn’t create character; it reveals it”

Denis Leary, American actor, writer and producer

On March 23, almost as soon as the lockdown in Uttarakhand, among everywhere else, came into force, the Waste Warriors teams sprang to life. Around 15 members of the Dehradun team immediately started locating the city’s waste pickers and their families who they knew lived on their daily earnings, picking waste at the city’s garbage dumps. A lockdown meant no food and a prolonged lockdown meant perhaps even starvation for them. Relief packages containing the basics — dal, rice, atta, oil, salt, sugar, turmeric, chilli powder and, in some cases, onions, potatoes and even some tea — were readied and began to be distributed in the hotspots. Working directly with the district magistrate’s (DM's) office and the police stations, the initiative has managed to keep the families fed through the lockdown. All the young team members — some of whom I know well — involved have special passes including for vehicles that allow them to move freely and all data management is digital and centralised. One of the members has been rechristened “Corona Warrior” for his exemplary work by the DM.

In a few other badly affected areas of the city, including the Bindal slum, Dehradun’s Aasraa trust — supported by ONGC and The Hans Foundation — swung into action and has supplied dry rations to feed close to 4,000 families in the last 18 days. Since the food relief packages last around 10 days, the operation remains ongoing and in full force. The Aasraa team, which through the year works to educate close to 3,350 slum children in the city, has never been busier.

Within the first few days of the lockdown, stories — some small and some at scale like this poured into both my email and WhatsApp from virtually every part of the country. In Mumbai, CORO, GIVE India and SNEHA had all launched initiatives aimed to ease the problems faced by the marginalised communities. Give India CEO Atul Satija said that his outfit had raised over Rs 25 crore to support over 200,000 people in partnership with over 35 NGOs in the last few weeks. Rahul Nainwal, who runs the India Fellow programmes that have pulled in many youngsters into the development world, has come up with a direct cash transfer plan for 100,000 worst affected families, the details of which are currently being worked on.

I felt a little thrill when a friend’s 20-year-old son — doing his undergraduate degree in the US and here during Covid-19 — in Gurugram drew my attention to the YouthFeed India initiative that he’s got involved in. Three youngsters from Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad have come together with a team of over 40 others to run relief operations in eight locations across the country in a pretty structured manner. In Gurugram — for all its preoccupation with glitz, glamour and having a good time — several people I know were able to look beyond themselves and were involved in running and joining initiatives that would gladden one’s heart, some in association with the district authorities.

I’d like to mention three things that struck me in the midst of all the predicted and impending gloom and doom. One, civil society and the role of NGOs cannot be ignored during a crisis like this if only on account of their strong connect with their communities. The first thought of many of these bodies was about their community and the alacrity with which many of them acted even at their own peril is reassuring to witness. Quite often, this section of society — just like the medical community — has been berated every time a bad apple surfaces and is in the news for the wrong reasons. But too little is said when it does in fact meet up to expectations. In this crisis, my respect for the lot goes up.

Call me naïve, sentimental or overly patriotic but I am delighted that we remain a country with its heart intact even during a crisis, especially since during normal times, one often feels we are heartless. The ability to think with its heart above its head has been demonstrated time and again by Mumbai when it rallied around those who find themselves in a spot but to see this at a nationwide level makes me proud to be an Indian.

And last but not the least, while I am fully cognizant of the fact that India’s healthcare system is far from perfect and that it has not really been tested so far in this crisis, there remains to my mind a glimmer of hope in a system where the first worry for a patient fighting the virus and being put on the ventilator (like a recent incident in the US) is not who will foot the bill. Let’s rejoice together in that.

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