The Visible Invisible: Vulnerability exposed by COVID-19 in India

From my experience in managing COVID-19 relief program of Arpana Foundation

On 24th of March, my mother and I were enthusiastically waiting for the address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the COVID-19 virus induced situation in India. I was engrossed by his speech and his astute response to the crisis. I felt he was brave; he was empathetic and more importantly he was sensible in imposing the 21-day lockdown to mitigate the transmission of virus in our society. Our immediate concern while watching this was whether we would have access to provisions and essential supplies to see through the lockdown. The previous few weeks I had been perusing the internet on topics related to the pandemic and the trends. What I observed mostly was the mass hysteria and panic buying that was triggered immediately by government-imposed shutdowns and quarantining. In fear of a similar outcome I proactively reached out to my friends, who run shops and supply goods, to ensure I would be able to stock up the essential resources. Prime Minister did say in his speech that the shops would be open with various restrictions and the goods would be allowed to be transported in order to ensure people get what they need to run their lives, but the skeptic in me was not convinced and I was anxious on facing the next day (1st day of lockdown). What I ridiculed with my friends on the unwanted hysteria and buying seen in COVID-19 afflicted countries, I feared would soon become my reality. Reflecting upon these incidents, I now interpret my actions to be self-centred and naïve albeit this was the general response that anyone would have done while facing the crisis. One’s own survival precedes any concern over the community/society at large. This sudden disruption of my routine life had a toll on my basic activities. I had to follow extraordinary sanitary practices in order to go out and procure the daily necessities. My sleep cycle had changed and this affected my sense of time and days. Productivity was not on my list of priorities. My concerns during this period of first lockdown was trivial. I was concerned about my attendance in college (yes it was spectacularly bad prior leading to the lockdown), my plans with friends, examination, summer internship etc. This seems to be typical concerns that a student would have and I guess my friends would have felt the same. Any other predicament that reporters were portraying seemed distant and unrelated to my concerns. I tried and eventually failed at reading challenges (a book a day) and to work on my creativity (drawing on procreate) but I questioned what the point of it was anyway. Days passed by and my biggest accomplishments were successful completion of an anime series with 170 episodes and watching all the Oscar nominated movies (barring JoJo Rabbit, where can I watch it in India? I am still looking for a streaming service).

One evening, during the latter stages of the lockdown, I received a call and I ignored it because it was interrupting my viewing of a captivating English series. I called back the next day to check who the person was? (the curiosity was mostly because I seldom got calls during this period) On the other side of the call was a quivering voice of a lady, who was inarticulate and rushing through her sentences. I could sense anxiety and worry in her voice. She was rambling on about her issues with lack of supplies and the impact it had on children. It was then I realized she is the person in-charge for one of the orphanages supported by Arpana Foundation. Now, with more intent, I listened to her issues. She told me that the provisions that we had given had ran out and she couldn’t muster up support from people in the locality to procure necessary supplies (the locals provide provisions for the orphanage almost all the time). She told me that the children will have to starve if she didn’t procure supplies in a couple of days. I appeased her and then informed that support will reach her soon and they wouldn’t have to starve and hung up the call. Then the reality hit me hard. My thoughts went spiralling and all I could think of was this particular conversation and how naively I had been whiling away time until then. I was supposed to anticipate this and reach out to all the people depending on Arpana Foundation’s support. Instead it took desperation by an in-charge of an orphanage to call me as a last resort. I could then imagine how other orphanages, old age homes or communities that are supported by us would be struggling now and anticipating help from us. These were critical times and my inaction had been precarious and I couldn’t go on any longer without addressing this.

My friend, Abdullah, who is responsible for communication with these homes called all our beneficiaries and enquired their status during the lockdown. We were shocked that 8 homes (old age homes and orphanages) had run out of supplies and are struggling. We immediately arranged for supplies that would last them for 2 months and distributed it at the earliest possible time. Our donors and partners were generous and responsive, this enabled our quick action. Just then I felt satisfied, for we had successfully delivered the supplies and now people are out of trouble. We got a lot of positive response on social media for our actions but a lot more enquiry on if there are any plans on helping other communities and localities. My friends enlightened me on the struggles faced by daily-wage workers and people who depended on manual labour. They already earn a meagre amount of money and this lockdown has made them further indisposed. I got to know the stories of people starving for days not because they didn’t have money but because there was no access to food (Typically at the outskirts of Chennai, the villages in Tiruvallur and Chengalpet). There were also situations that was the very opposite of this, where people have access to food but no money to buy them (Homeless people and urban poor communities). I had this overwhelming urge to do something but was impeded by my own mental dilemma. Questions such as: Won’t they get help from government? How many can I possibly help? Will it even matter? How do I morally choose whom to help? This is when I remembered why Arpana existed. The founder of this movement Mr. Mathi Alagan would always tell me that it isn’t how many we helped; it is about how well we helped. Our actions maybe small in a larger context but to that person who receives it, it means the world to him. I understood that even if we are able to support one fellow human to survive through the lockdown, we would have done our duty as human being. It is not a matter of pride or privilege rather the responsibility of any decent human to try his best in easing another one’s pain.

With revived optimism and a plan of action we started our work. We established community kitchens at 4 different places across Chennai and its outskirts, in order to reach as many as we can. We engaged our orphanages and homes in acting as our local partner to execute our operations. We designed provision kits, a bit before it became the trend in any COVID-19 relief campaign, and scouted for the communities that were remote and lacked any access to supplies. Our solution was to help those who have access to us by distributing food everyday (cities) and to those who lacked access by providing them with provisions that would make them self-sufficient in surviving the lockdown. I would take up another blog post to explain our strategy and how we executed our plans.

So, let me now try to point out the various forms that vulnerability takes during this lock-down. Firstly, among the urban poor who live in housing boards or slums, who work as daily wage workers or maids or manual labourers. They plan their living to the last rupee and even a small reduction in their earning would put a huge dent in their capability to perform everyday task. Extrapolate that to the fact that they aren’t earning at all and you will arrive at a dangerous scenario. Government and various institutions can cater to them but that takes time. The policies and welfare systems have to rolled out from the top but can hunger wait? We all have been sharing videos on hand-washing, use of hand sanitizers and face masks and more importantly good hygiene process, but can these people really afford such hygiene which they have been systemically denied all these years. The concept of social distancing seems an elitist idea when you realise these people live in houses that are smaller than your bedroom and so closely knit to each other that there is literally no separation between one house to another. Imagine in that constrained space you have families of 4 or 5 people (conservatively) living next to many such family unit. The men and women stay home due to restrictions to work or mobilise and this makes it even more suffocating because they have to stay there for 24 hours every day. I may not know their situations and troubles because I have not had that experience but I can imagine how it would be and how anybody would feel in those situations. Moving away from these slums to villages in Tiruvallur and Chengalpet, where people cannot move to their workplace away from their villages, which occurred due to the socio-economic stress that made them migrant workers. They do not have a proper supply chain system to bring the supplies to the villages. The vendors aren’t there three blocks away from their homes. The shops are sparsely present throughout these regions and one cannot access them without compromising the quarantine. Development projects in these districts has brought in workers from states that are at the other end of the country. These workers cannot even find comfort in their community. Homeless people depended on others during the normal (the conventional) days. Now that people aren’t moving around or gathering outside, they are left detached. Tribal belts suffer even worse. They live in areas that are even more remote and are extremely vulnerable. There are vulnerabilities that not merely just physical. Imagine the psychological vulnerability. The conditions for domestic abuse, quarrelling and strains on relationships.

Yes, one could argue that everyone during this lockdown is vulnerable. We are vulnerable to diseases, job loss, lack of socialization, cut-off from our academic processes and even not able to access our privilege. Restrictions on availing online services and apps has handicapped many and some of us even feel suffocated (not physically) due to the sedentary lifestyle during these days. These are visible to us and afflicts us directly. Our concerns are mostly on unavailability of certain product or the ability to choose between a variety of similar consumer goods. It is visible and it is significantly felt. What has also become visible to all is the plight of the invisibles. The people who exist in our society but aren’t visible to us. Our watchman or maid are a few exceptions, though they are visible to us, their plight isn’t. When you consider the manual scavenger who cleans our waste, the masons who builds our home, the porters who carries the goods we receive, the daily wage worker who loads the groceries and supplies that we consume, and many such people who have now lost much of their livelihood. Their plight that had previously been invisible and most probably ignored (unconsciously) have now surfaced and is visible to all. People generally tend to focus on things that would make them morally positive. We involuntarily ignore the things that would prick our consciences because it is unpleasant and more importantly it is unsettling. Vulnerability among these people have been present even before this crisis, only that it is aggravated now.

It took one phone call to wake me to this scenario and I still ponder upon these issues. I haven’t truly formed a conviction on such vulnerabilities and our inaction. I am not even in the position to propose solutions or even provoke the right questions. What do I know about the struggle of these people? What have I done to develop empathy? Who am I to even point these things out? One thing I am certain about in the midst of such quandary is that: discussions and debates can happen, philosophy of these topics can be talked about, arguments can be formed, opinions can be stated but at the end of the day does it help the person who is starving?

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