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How volunteers are matching physical distancing with social solidarity

Within 24 hours of setting up a social media group and helpline called Caremongers India on March 20, Nagaraj had 150 volunteers from across India

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Coronavirus | Health Ministry

Nikita Puri 

Coronavirus
A lot of the queries made to these different helplines are also from adults living away from their elderly parents.

This past weekend in Bengaluru, before India went into lockdown, telecall agent Suraj Christopher drove for over an hour to deliver a package to perfect strangers, a septuagenarian couple. The package contained their diabetes medication. A woman had reached out to Christopher earlier, explaining how she usually visited her parents every week but the lockdown meant she was stuck in Chennai. Her elderly parents lived in Bengaluru.

The past few days have seen Christopher making many such deliveries, even waiting for hours in case his local pharmacy has to arrange for a medicine. He uses gloves and a mask as protective gear, and ensures he washes them every time he returns after dropping something off.

Elsewhere, as the authorities moved around an apartment complex in Noida while television crews buzzed after news broke of a Covid-19 positive case there, Madhavi Juneja drove up and stepped out with a bag of groceries for someone holed up in one apartment. “There were no shops open in his area. This was before the ‘Janta Curfew’ and no one even knew what a lockdown even meant. People weren’t allowed to move in or out of the complexes,” recalls Juneja, a psychotherapist. “We had clear instructions that there should not be any physical contact and the groceries had to be dropped off at the gate.” Having dropped off the package, Juneja, who had come wearing an extra layer of clothing, sanitised her hands and drove home.

Both Christopher and Juneja are a part of Caremongers India, volunteers who have come together across the country starting the previous weekend, responding to a call to action by Bengaluru-based Mahita Nagaraj. A digital marketing professional, Nagaraj realised that there were people who needed extra assistance in the time of Covid-19 when two US-based friends called to ask if she could drop off medicines to their parents living alone in the city.

Within 24 hours of setting up a social media group and helpline called Caremongers India on March 20, Nagaraj had 150 volunteers from across India. By early this week the volunteers had crossed the 4,000-mark with sign-ups from cities as far afield as Mohali, Panchkula, Coimbatore, Kasaragod, Mysuru and Guwahati. The group caters to four categories: the elderly, parents with infants under a year old, people with pre-existing medical conditions and those with physical challenges. The word “caremongering”, which turns the word “scaremongering” on its head, is believed to have originated in Canada a few weeks ago.

“The one thing that the lockdown has shown us is that now our services are more essential than ever.” Nagaraj has spent the last few days getting the requisite permissions to continue the group’s work across Karnataka. Now that she’s got the permissions, volunteers are likely to get passes soon that will specify the nature of their essential work and allow them some freedom of movement during the lockdown. The group is working on getting similar permissions in other states.

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“We live in times when many of us don’t even know who our neighbours are,” says Noida-based Ashish Sachdeva, founder of a non-profit called Green Dream Foundation that usually works on environmental issues. But considering the more immediate needs that arise in a country in lockdown, Sachdeva has diverted all of the non-profit’s resources, including social media platforms and his team, to ensuring that senior citizens get the help they need without stepping out of their homes. Sachdeva’s initiative hopes to match volunteers with senior citizens who live in close proximity.

“We started asking for volunteers on Monday evening (March 23) and had over 200 people step up from 20 cities,” says Sachdeva. Since the list of both volunteers and senior citizens is growing, Sachdeva hopes to use data-mapping to connect senior citizens with volunteers who live in the same neighbourhood for faster results. Sachdeva calls the initiative #COVIDelivery and his volunteers include people from cities and towns such as Cuttack, Bokaro, Prayagraj, Hardoi, Dhanbad, Saharanpur and Jammu.

Both Nagaraj and Sachdeva are careful to protect the privacy of their volunteers as well as senior citizens. And even as they handle the number of requests pouring in, more initiatives are taking shape in these troubled times. In Chennai, for instance, the Bhoomika Trust, a non-profit, opened a helpline this week for senior citizens and the immunity-compromised.

“A lot of senior citizens get catered food. Those who used to deliver the food can no longer do it. Many grocery stores are closed and senior citizens are also reporting how their medication is just waiting to be picked up from the pharmacy,” says Aruna Subramaniam, trustee at Bhoomika.

A lot of the queries made to these different helplines are also from adults living away from their elderly parents. “Just knowing that there’s someone to help your parents if required is ‘mental help’ to a lot of people,” says Sachdeva.

All of these volunteer networks are mindful of security protocols that include physical distancing and sanitisation and reiterate these guidelines for their volunteers.

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Extraordinary times such as these call for greater preparedness and foresight. In Delhi, where the government provides 2,000 meals on an average at the Yamuna Shelter, the numbers, in the words of the government’s media adviser Nagendar Sharma, “went up to 7,000 suddenly” as India went into lockdown. That was at one shelter alone. An overnight lockdown has meant that even as migrant labourers are stuck in cities away from their homes, even locals dependent on daily wages find themselves unable to pay for food.

To protect India’s unheard masses, non-profits such as Goonj and crowdsourcing platforms like Milaap are collecting funds for families that are homeless or otherwise vulnerable. The Zomato Feeding Programme, another non-profit, is providing weekly rations to help migrant daily workers stay afloat by crowdsourcing funds. Various citizen groups, such as Alert Citizens Forum, and housing societies in Mumbai organise rations, while Delhi-based non-profit Uday Foundation is raising funds to provide “care kits” — packets of sanitisers, handwash and groceries — to the homeless.

In Bhopal a group of friends has joined hands with a union of unorganised workers to raise funds for essential items. As a part of an initiative called Feeding Bhopal, while social media-savvy volunteers raise funds online, the network of volunteers on the ground oversees distribution of grocery items. “This is a ground-up movement and we trust the sanghatan (union) to understand the needs of a community that has seen loss of wages following the lockdown,” says Ameya Bokil, an independent lawyer and a volunteer with the programme.

Taking charge of such initiatives hasn’t been easy but there’s no time for volunteers to give that a second thought. By the end of each day, Nagaraj, who sometimes get 80 calls and texts in an hour, puts together the day’s statistics of the number of calls the Caremongers group has received, the number of general queries and requests among them, number of requests fulfilled, denied or deferred. “I’m on it 18 hours a day. The calls start coming in at 5.30 in the morning and sometimes go on till 1 at night,” she says.

Perhaps the best way to spend 21 days under lockdown is to figure out safe ways to help a neighbour in need, in being part of the solution as the country fights a pandemic.

First Published: Fri, March 27 2020. 20:58 IST
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