India’s Volunteers Picked Up the Slack in the Government’s COVID-19 Response. Now They’re Exhausted

How ordinary folk saved India during the recent surge

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India’s Volunteers Picked Up the Slack in the Government’s COVID-19 Response. Now They’re Exhausted
People wait to refill empty oxygen cylinders at a plant in Naraina, on April 27, 2021 in New Delhi, India / Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Sitting in my home in Kolkata when the panic of this COVID-19 surge first started, I called a close friend who lives in Delhi, anxiously inquiring about the well-being of her family. Our hourlong phone conversation unfolded against the backdrop of ambulance sirens that remained constant and continuous, adding a surrealness that was unfathomable just a few months earlier.

Shortly after our call, my friend lost her grandmother to the virus. And in the weeks that followed, the sirens and death notices only increased. I could not help but remember my own grandfather’s funeral last year, which I was unable to attend due to the lockdown. My grief resurfaced and seemed to have grown in magnitude.

Since the state of India has shirked its responsibilities toward managing our public health, ordinary people have been picking up the slack by doing voluntary relief work, acting as first responders, and searching for medical equipment to make up for shortages. Our volunteer efforts feel like the only way to ensure the survival of our communities.

In early spring last year, when India had less than 1,000 documented cases of COVID-19, we saw one of the harshest lockdowns in the world. In the ensuing months, the privileged among us were baking bread and learning to appreciate the slowness of life, while the less privileged walked on empty highways in their desperate attempts to get home.

India’s health minister declared “success in defeating the virus” a year into the lockdown, calling it the “endgame” of the pandemic. In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasted of India’s “successful containment” of COVID-19 at the World Economic Forum. India had, as Modi said, played a great role in saving “humanity from a big disaster by containing the coronavirus effectively.”

Even as cases seemed to be increasing in Mumbai, the country’s financial hub and center of Bollywood, the rest of the country was experiencing a rollback of lockdown; tourism opened again, construction sites went into full swing, overcrowded public transport moved again, open-air and rooftop bars gave solace to the rich and restless, and roadside tea stalls and public parks pulsated with life.

Yet here we are, a few months later, facing what had been an unimaginable surge of COVID-19 cases. Images of mass cremations have dominated newspapers, and my social media accounts remain flooded with calls for help. Death due to medical negligence and shortages has become commonplace. At first, this was happening in Delhi. But now the pandemic has taken over other cities as well as inaccessible and rural parts of India — places that largely remained unaffected during the first wave.

At the peak of this surge in May, India saw on average over 400,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 4,000 deaths from the virus every day. (The daily average has since fallen to 77,719 cases, with a conservative estimate of 2,700 deaths reported daily.)

Deepika Singh, a student and fellow volunteer working on the ground in Delhi since mid-April, captures a common sentiment: “I haven’t slept for more than a month now. Whether it’s SOS messages, updates from people we’ve connected (with), or the news that someone passed away — I am always alert, completely hypervigilant.”

And if the initial trauma from images of burning bodies and our fellow people gasping for oxygen were not enough, just last month we bore witness to dead bodies floating up India’s holiest river. “On the rare occasion that I get sleep, though, I have nightmares,” Deepika added, echoing the fatigue endured by the rest of us.

These nightmares bleed into our days and haunt our waking hours. Everyone seems to be walking with brain fog, saying half-sentences that, although incomplete, we still understand. Everyone seems to know that the partial statement “verified leads for,” which is uttered by people all the time, actually means: “verified leads for oxygen cylinders/ICU beds required.” As I write this, two months since the panic hit in mid-April, my phone is still buzzing with messages as volunteers on WhatsApp and Telegram share screenshots, “leads,” for where to find oxygen cylinders and beds in intensive care units — urgent and desperate pleas that might have decreased in frequency but remain persistent. Another set of volunteers coordinate deliveries and assist the old and infirm — that is, they go and stand in line on behalf of the people who are too sick to leave their beds.

Even private hospitals have been overburdened, which only adds pressure to the weak public health care system.

But the main consensus is that the government has abandoned the people in our greatest hour of need.

Several factors are to blame for this unrelenting, brutal second wave, including a new variant, a falling rate of vaccination, and a high population density that makes it difficult to implement social distancing. But the main consensus is that the government has abandoned the people in our greatest hour of need.

The glaring absence of public services has prompted someone to file — as a form of political satire — a “missing person” report against Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, who has indeed been all but missing in action.

“I would have had some demands from them if they were even around. They seem to have completely vanished. Even Sonu Sood (an actor who has been involved in COVID-19 relief) has been more visible and accountable to the public than our PM and others in power,” local volunteer Shalini Das told me. Along with her mother and sister-in-law, Das has provided almost 2,000 meals to over 100 families across Kolkata, mostly through self-funding and the occasional donation of individuals.

As states across India went through harsh lockdowns, official figures still don’t tell the whole story. Underreporting of deaths has, since early on, emerged as a significant indicator that the crisis is bigger than officially alleged, which means that even as the panic has subsided, the pandemic is still claiming lives. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and even Kolkata are beginning to open up, but rural India is being ravaged by this second wave, and the extent of the damage has become difficult, if not impossible, to assess. Health care workers and media and citizen journalists have shown that due to a lack of testing and access to health care facilities, cases are going underreported, making a bad situation worse.

Deepanshu Kundu, a social worker who has been involved in training programs in rural areas of West Bengal, contracted COVID-19 in April after conducting fieldwork. Still enduring a slow recovery, he has been assisting the Liver Foundation West Bengal and India’s Covid Care Network in setting up a COVID-19 hospital in Sunderbans, a mangrove ecosystem on the coast of West Bengal, which was already reeling from the effects of two cyclones endured last year. “It was quite heartbreaking to actually witness the profound lack of access to health care in these areas,” he told me.

He is among many citizens who have become active since April, working through the apex of this surge in May and into June to make up for the dire shortages of basic health care facilities.

These citizen-led aid efforts and networks mean there is now a parallel taskforce to fight COVID-19. Places of worship, like gurdwaras, have become makeshift COVID-19 wards as well as oxygen stations. Auto rickshaws have been converted into ambulances, many by individual drivers with the help of civil society organizations. There are dedicated resources that cater to marginalized communities such as essential workers and vulnerable LGBTQ+ individuals. Mental health support is also being offered pro bono by many organizations.

My sister, a clinical psychologist-in-training at a government hospital in the country’s capital, has seen most of her colleagues become infected with COVID-19. Her patients have been struggling to access the mental health facility due to the lockdown. While many of us could not believe that the authorities would abandon us to our fate in the midst of what can be described as a COVID-19 apocalypse, my sister saw this coming.

“Modi has told us to be self-sufficient and left us to fend for ourselves. How much more clear can the message get?” she had announced during a family gathering. She was referring to Modi’s words on India’s Independence Day (Aug. 15), when he called for atma nirbhar, or self-sufficient India.

She is not alone in blaming Modi’s words and governance, especially in light of recent — and reckless — Hindu religious commemorations like the Kumbh Mela, where millions of people gathered, turning the event into what is now recognized as one of the biggest super-spreaders in the history of the pandemic.

Instead of tightening restrictions or postponing the religious festivities, the chief minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttarakhand offered reassurance to the public, saying that “faith of devotees will overcome the fear of COVID-19.” Limited testing before and after the mass gathering added fuel to the fire. Meanwhile, recent news revealed that many of those limited tests were faulty.

Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, an epidemiologist, public health specialist, and co-author of “Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The COVID-19 Pandemic,” acknowledged with some reservations to me that he found citizen action has indeed been remarkable and that, historically, citizen and civil society responses have often carried India through times of crisis. “Having said that, the response on its own is just not enough. We need a coordinated government response,” he added.

The government appeared as early as April to abandon responsibility and expect civil society to pick up the slack. That month was also marked by grand regional election campaigns in parts of India, where crowds were beckoned to attend in the thousands. One such state was West Bengal, one of the few states that is not ruled by the right-wing Hindutva regime.

“The Election Commission of India, egged on by the Modi regime, has blood on its hands. They have, and continue to, play with people’s lives without remorse,” Deepanshu said. “They were insistent on carrying out a big show, trying to win.”

There also is public anger over another one of the Modi government’s perceived priorities: moving forward on a controversial 200 billion INR ($2.7 billion) renovation project during the COVID-19 surge. The project includes a new residence for the prime minister.

The government has grown defensive on what it sees as a smear of its image. Fellow journalists and civil society groups who have been critical of the government response have been complaining of increased harassment by the authorities. Deepika, who is concerned about her own safety as a volunteer and feels anguished about this recent crackdown on free speech, lamented the situation: “Instead of actually effectively procuring needed oxygen, medication, vaccines, or even building up temporary COVID treatment facilities, the government is instead stopping those who are trying to save themselves.”

Moving forward, we see some hope in a recent inquiry into allocated spending on COVID-19 relief by the Modi government by India’s Supreme Court, which is holding the government to its promise of administering free vaccines to everyone.

The government also appears to have reversed its long-standing tradition of not accepting foreign aid, which is pouring in from all corners of the world. My tired fellow volunteers can only hope to reap some benefit from this.

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