B Vaidyanathan isn’t usually a cynical person. But like most Indians he had little expectations from government institutions. Or at least till a month ago. All that changed when the 66-year-old corporate insurance broker from Delhi, along with his wife, contracted COVID-19. The couple, who stayed alone, tried booking a private ambulance but none came forward citing their viral condition. Eventually, it was a government-run ambulance service that came to their rescue.
"After our test came positive, we got a call from the Delhi government-run COVID helpline. They responded to our questions calmly and told us how to book an ambulance. An hour after we booked it, the ambulance arrived at our doorstep and took us to the nearby private hospital where we got ourselves admitted. They didn’t charge us a rupee," says Vaidyanathan.
During the course of the treatment, his wife, who is a CGHS (Central Government Health Scheme) beneficiary, regularly got calls from doctors of her CGHS zone to check on her medical and non-medical needs. "I was surprised by how promptly the ambulance arrived and how the government doctors called us every day and kept our morale high. It was unexpected," Vaidyanathan says.
Most citizens are used to the official apathy, political infighting, lethal pollution levels, crumbling healthcare, canyons of caste divisions and social barriers, corruption, rising crime and neglect. Ironically, COVID-19 seems to have united India, which seems to have overcome previously insurmountable limitations and brought forward a new society which seems to be doing many things right.
A few sporadic outbursts notwithstanding, the cooperation between the Centre and the states reached a rare accord by setting political differences aside for the moment. Though many public institutions charged crippling frees to take fellow Indians home, ordinary people stepped up: a girl carrying her ailing father home on a bicycle covering 1,200 km had even Ivanka Trump raving. Citizens, rich and poor, stood in the sun, or loaded their cars, with food and water for their less unfortunate brethren trudging hundreds of kilometres to their villages.
It was a voyage of self-discovery: Brahmins, Thakurs and Dalits shared food and water because survival seemed more important than prejudice. Doctors and nurses risked their lives to save critical patients, in spite of facing ungrateful ostracism and fear from their own neighbours. Skies turned blue, birdsong and butterflies returned to once-grimy gardens and rivers filled with dolphins—sights two generations of Indians had ever seen in their lives.
Responsibility towards fellowmen is the recurrent motif of the COVID-19 trauma: cases were brought down in Mumbai's cheek-by-jowl Dharavi slum through sheer social distancing and municipal screening efforts.Is it the dawn of a new India? Positivity is a rare upside to the outbreak, which has brought the best of nations down on their knees.
Ajo Jose, a nursing officer with the central government-run RML Hospital in Delhi, was part of the first medical team, which evacuated 324 Indians from Wuhan, China, in January. At that time, Jose wasn’t sure how the days ahead would pan out.
Now, over six months he has taken care of hundreds of coronavirus patients while on duty at a COVID-converted hotel arranged by the government. Every 15 days, he goes into quarantine for seven days, and follows it up with seven days of non-COVID ward duty. This is when he visits his parents.
"Initially, we were all apprehensive about how to deal with patients, work in uncomfortable PPE (personal protective equipment) suits, how to eat and when to take breaks," says the 33-year-old. Over time he figured out most things. He started eating more so that he wouldn't be hungry in the middle of his shift.
He started drinking less fluids so that in his 12-hour shift he had to remove the PPE suits only briefly. Some of his peers in other hospitals even started wearing adult diapers. “Since we can’t touch anyone anymore and our faces aren’t visible under the PPE masks, providing emotional support to isolated patients is the most difficult task,” he adds.
According to government data, India has only 1.7 nurses per 1,000 population against the 3 per 1,000 WHO norm. The allopathic doctor-population ratio is well below the WHO prescribed ratio of 1:1000. Doctors in government hospitals are working 18-hour shifts to meet staff shortage.
Last week, the Indian Medical Association reported that 99 doctors across the country have succumbed to COVID while on duty. The ailing health infrastructure keeps most people away from government hospitals.
Yet at the outbreak of the pandemic it was healthcare workers in government hospitals who worked beyond their duty hours. "It’s remarkable how they've risen to the occasion. Despite gruelling working conditions and the initial stigma from society, they’ve worked tirelessly," says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan.
Like for example Zahid Abdul Majeed, a resident doctor at AIIMS, Delhi, who risked his life by removing his goggles and face shield in a dimly lit ambulance to re-intubate a COVID-19 patient who was being transferred to the trauma centre of the hospital. During COVID, government hospitals, despite their limitations, delivered results.
Take Kerala for instance. The state recorded the country's first COVID case on January 30. Led by a united front of politicians and bureaucrats, healthcare workers and district officers worked from early morning until late into the night to contain the rising numbers; the international media hailed it a model state. In Chhattisgarh, the state took control of the privately run Raipur Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) to properly treat COVID-19 patients.
“Government hospitals have the best doctors. They don’t always get support in terms of infrastructure and supplies but this time it's a different story. States (albeit with some initial delays) have ensured that there are enough PPE kits, oxygen and ventilator-related beds and other essentials to treat the biggest public health emergency the nation has witnessed so far,” says Shailaja Chandra, former secretary in the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and former Chief Secretary, Delhi.
BLAME GAME ON HOLD
Last month, former MP Shahid Siddiqui took to Twitter to share his trauma of getting his niece admitted to a hospital in Delhi. She showed COVID-like symptoms. As his tweets went viral, his niece got a bed in Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi. Even though she eventually lost the battle to COVID, he expressed his gratitude over social media, to those who helped him in his hour of crisis.
"In hindsight, I realised how many people came forward to help me. Leaders from the RSS, the BJP, the Left and the Congress helped my niece get admitted," says Siddiqui. This reflects the unsaid political unity that has come up. Prime Minister Narendra Modi got flak from the Opposition for announcing the 21-day lockdown on March 24.
"States were unprepared. The Centre hadn’t taken into account how various states would roll out efficient plans to maintain the lockdown. But within few weeks, glitches were smoothened out, and both the Centre and the states worked in tandem," points out Siddiqui.
But not everything was hunky-dory in the beginning. The ruling BJP faced huge criticism from all quarters for not caring for migrant workers on the move, having lost their livelihood. Some died on roadsides and rail tracks.
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee was vociferous in highlighting the Centre's treatment of her State. But in the last three months there seems to be a lull in the harshness. In a public address, the PM lauded states for their battle against COVID. Chief Ministers reciprocated. ASHA workers across states offered returning migrants hope.
Manju Jena, an ASHA worker from Khurda district, Odisha, single-handedly defended any stigmatised migrant denied entry to his village. She relentlessly spread community awareness on COVID to ensure that the returnee stayed in home quarantine. She constantly monitored his or her health status during quarantine.
Manju distributed the face masks she stitched at home to the poor in her village. About 46,627 ASHAs in Odisha have emerged as champions against COVID in rural and urban areas. "All directions and advisories have percolated from the Centre down to the states and from the states to the districts. Even when gaps come to light I see a problem-solving approach instead of the usual blame game. Considering India's size and diversity, this is unique. No one has a choice but to work in alignment. Only the immature won’t work together," says Chandra.
THE ENVIRONMENT REJUVENATES ITSELF
COVID achieved what successive governments and crores of rupees has been unable to do. It brought pollution levels down to unimaginable levels. Delhi's notorious winter smog, air pollution forcing schools to close classes, a Ganga choked by industrial effluents and the Yamuna frothing with poisonous waste matter are well-documented.
But as ironical as it may sound, lockdown came as a fresh breather for the environment. It meant fewer cars on the road and less people to litter the streets and the rivers. The Yamuna river cleaned itself. Migratory birds feasting on fish in the clear water seemed a miracle. For once, the significant drop in the earth’s ambient seismic noise allowed scientists to detect smaller magnitude earthquakes.
"The environment had started to heal itself. The drop in air and water pollution are a testament to this," says Prof BD Tripathi, chairman, Mahamana Malaviya Research Centre for Ganga, River Development and Water Resource Management (MMRC for Ganga), Banaras Hindu University.
A study by his team in April detected that water pollution in the Ganga decreased by 25 percent to 30 per cent during the lockdown. "Several years of public awareness campaigns failed to achieve what a pandemic did to reduce pollutants," says Tripathi.
For the first time in decades, the air was so clear that social media was filled with pictures of people posting views of Himalayan mountains from their homes in northern India. "When now people of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, or Jalandhar in Punjab can see the hills from their homes, they must be realising what they were missing earlier," points out Indian Forest Service officer Parveen Kaswan.
He is vocal about humans violating the environment. "There’s enough research pointing towards the relationship between virus spillovers and global biodiversity loss. We must value this short bout of clean air and clean water," he adds.
CASTE ON PAUSE
A humanitarian crisis rose when thousands of migrants, abandoned by the establishment fled for home, walking without food, shelter, and transportation, swarming the national highways. But once they reached home, many villages were reportedly unwelcome owing to the stigma of the virus.
The divide that has been tearing up the country for centuries seemed to close, at least temporarily. The outpouring of common grief overtook religious divides. "There were migrants from several states like Bihar and UP who stayed and ate together in our camps. They maintained only social distancing, no religious distancing. All of them just wanted to go back home. No one thought of caste at that time," says Premkumar Kannan, councillor from Cherur in Thrissur district, Kerala. The camp ran for 63 days to provide food and shelter to 168 people from different castes and communities.
SIDES OF COMPASSION
Saisri Akondi vouches for the camaraderie she saw among migrants of different communities. Akondi, a 23-year-old entrepreneur from Pune, was visiting her friend in Manipal, Karnataka, just before the nationwide lockdown in March. There she met a group of stranded migrants from Telangana who were struggling to return home. She arranged the logistics.
"It never occurred to me how I can help but I had to intervene," she says. Her struggle lasted for a week. In the meantime, she ensured food and shelter for them. With the money she raised from the government and crowdfunding, Akondi was able to send 50 migrants back home. She says, "They had only one identity—migrants."
BEYOND CALL OF DUTY
Indians simply don’t trust the police; especially poor and middle-class Indians. But cops rose to the occasion when the coronavirus struck. On a sweltering afternoon in May, police officer Vikas Kumar Jaiswal was overseeing the movement of migrant labourers in Agra district.
For the past several weeks he had been noticing their dirty clothes, torn footwear; some were even barefoot. The long journey may not have killed their souls but it did leave an indelible impression on their feet. "I collected funds from my colleagues. Many people around the area donated generously. We set up a footwear camp for migrants," says Jaiswal, DSP and circle officer of the Sadar area of the district.
Under lockdown, cops have delivered birthday cakes to children and medicines to the elderly. They have given food to the homeless and sang on streets to spread awareness around the virus. The police, infamous for human rights abuse and corruption, became the kind men in khaki. "The fear factor was diluted since everyone faced an unknown danger in the virus. People saw us working with health workers in quarantine centres. They saw us cycling through dangerously congested lanes to calm people’s fears," says Bala Shankar Upadhyay, an inspector with the Delhi Police.
KINDNESS IS CONTAGIOUS
Celebrities who take up social causes are usually seen with a jaundiced eye and accused of publicity hunting. COVID-19 has watered down this perception in some cases. Actor Sonu Sood became the poster boy of kindness for migrants.
As part of his 'Ghar Bhejo' campaign, he has helped approximately 12,000 migrants reach home, and made arrangements for another 45,000. It wasn’t uncommon to see people reaching out to Sood when in distress.
From distributing food to helping underprivileged children have access to online education, from converting campuses to makeshift hospitals to cooking enormous meals for the strays, acts of kindness have gone contagious. "It’s not that people have not helped earlier in times of crisis, but what has changed now is the intent to reach out," says Venessa Carmel, a Kochi resident and member of the All India Professional Congress.
Besides running community kitchens and helplines, Carmel and her organisation started a smart device bank drive where people donated smartphones, television sets, and other gadgets that could help children from under-privileged communities attend online classes.
The pandemic put forward the stark reality of hunger faced by the homeless. The misery was all too well-known for Alag Natarajan, a 71-year-old former entrepreneur, who has never failed to reach out to those in need. In his posh South Delhi neighbourhood, Natarajan is known as the ‘matkaman’ as for the last five years he has been filling up clay pots (matkas) set up by him across the Capital to provide potable drinking water to the poor.
Last month, Natarajan, who hails from Delhi, ordered a 40-litre pressure cooker to cook mixed beans and vegetables and prepared a nutritious salad. Thrice a week he goes around his locality feeding the destitute and labourers the salad and buttermilk. "I feed around 100 to 120 people a day" says Natarajan. Has the pandemic brought out kindness among fellow beings? "Perhaps in villages people are helping each other. But in cities the arrogance of the affluent is unbearable," he shrugs. But then we have heard many stories of how landlords have foregone rent.
A survey report released by real estate portal 99acres.com showed that 16 percent landlords waived rent for two months and 41 percent offered extension on payments to tenants. Koduri Balalingam, a house owner in Hyderabad, deferred the rent amounting to Rs 3.4 lakh for 75 tenants.
In Mumbai, where COVID cases peaked, ordinary citizens found out unique ways to offer help. Mumbai engineering student Hriday Chabbria came up with a face shield after realising that most NGOs focused only on larger hospitals due to high demand.
"I figured that the smaller local clinics, which are usually the first responders to people from lower income households, had no alternatives and were operating without PPEs. I launched the Combat From Home Initiative in May to create a democratised database of PPE requirements of local clinics in Mumbai," says the 21-year-old student. He held a fundraiser to meet the demands of small clinicians, which covered 100 percent of the PPE cost including shipment charges.
The contrarian view So has society become more humane, less corrupt and more conscious of our environment? Are we more empathetic now? "It’s a split level picture. Doctors and nurses rose to the occasion. Langars are doing well but individuals and not institutions are the ones helping out," argues Visvanathan.
When civil society groups were unable to gauge the magnitude of the migrant problem, only individual bureaucrats worked for the cause. "The middle class has been indifferent. Generosity is exhibited only at lower levels," he adds.
Visvanathan’s viewpoint finds resonance with sociologist Dipankar Gupta. "Selfless actions during the COVID crisis comes generally not from the starched and prim upper classes. More often than not it’s the ordinary health workers, the nurses, the ambulance drivers, the bus conductors and the junior doctors in government hospitals who respond," says Gupta. "It’s accordingly necessary to acknowledge people in a class and status-marked fashion rather than in blanket fashion while discussing 'goodness' in COVID-19 times," he adds.
Too good to last?
Though experts and organisations studying human behaviour may beg to differ, the question that seeks merit is whether the country has demonstrated a ‘model’ behaviour for the future? For how often do we hear constant stories of environmental revival, religious harmony, suspended ideologies and government responsibility towards ordinary citizens in one composite period and place.
Will the pandemic leave us with some lessons?
"The road ahead is not predictable," says Chandra. The former bureaucrat doesn’t wear rose-tinted spectacles. "Now more than ever, we must learn from best practices and prompt communication," she says. As temporary as it may be, Kaswan believes, it is upon ordinary people and institutions to rebuild the world after the COVID episode. "We must preserve biodiversity and let wildlife thrive," he says.
Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi believes that "it’s sheer wisdom to continue to work together". She has no clear answers on the nation's path forward. "We can if we draw the right lessons, and people and public officials work individually and collectively. But I think it’s a tall order," she says candidly. Meanwhile, Vaidyanathan hasn’t stopped extolling the virtues of the government officials.
"Only after we got discharged did calls from the healthcare workers stop. Being a common person, I’m not used to being taken care of this way by the state. It’s good and has to last," he says optimistically. The jury is still out on that one.