The second wave of the pandemic in the country saw a large number of volunteers in action. We saw an increase in the number of cases, lack of beds, oxygen and ventilators, data and stories showing a huge number of patients dying while waiting to find beds in hospitals. The graphic and disturbing images from crematoriums, and this situation affecting almost everyone directly or indirectly led to the creation of a group of ‘volunteers’.
There were volunteers finding beds, volunteers cooking hot meals and volunteers working with our strained health care system. Many of my friends were working day and night for people who they did not even know! It was a relief to find posters about home cooked food and oxygen delivery services amidst SOS alerts on Instagram stories and Whatsapp updates. The sense of solidarity built in a matter of few days through social media and other networks gave me hope.
Around the same time, or maybe a week or two later, there was a surge in the number of covid cases in rural India as well. In the villages of Southern Rajasthan, while the data did not show much of an increase in the covid cases, every household had at least two people who had fever, body aches, cold, cough and other symptoms of Covid. While deaths did not come in the headlines of any newspaper, almost every fifth male I saw on field had shaved their heads. There was some sort of ‘silenced’ panic.
I am sure there were many volunteers who emerged to provide support to one another in this region too. I unfortunately do not have any stories to share of any such ‘unsung heroes’. However, I got an opportunity to build a group of volunteers in order to respond to this complex health crisis in the villages. This opportunity has provided me some understanding of ‘volunteering’ in this context and a few stories about the heroes I got to closely work with.
AMRIT clinics run by Basic Healthcare Services works in rural southern Rajasthan, mainly with vulnerable families from the tribal community.The second wave of Covid hit the villages we work in and providing care and support on field became our focus. (Refer to my previous blog to understand the strategy for Covid care)
The community care response was heavily reliant on the volunteers from the community. The network of volunteers would be working towards building awareness on covid, and providing medicines, advising on home care and following up on identified patients. These volunteers would be the backbone of this strategy in order to reach out to the most remote households.
THE ROLE OF OUR VOLUNTEERS
Our volunteers however also are playing a much bigger role- of being an ‘insider’, of being ‘one among them’, of being ‘trustworthy’. We are working in villages where people fear vaccines and medicines and even the word ‘Corona’ due to rampant spread of misinformation and misconceptions rooted in deeper issues like lack of trust in the government system. The volunteers not only understand this context and speak the local language, but also come up with original ideas on tackling these misconceptions around the virus.
I have met many patients with evident symptoms, denying being unwell in the first place or refusing to take medicines. Some people do not share their names, some others feel very threatened and hide or run away. This can be attributed to what people hear or read.
“Capsule ke andar kuch hoga, vaccine se bacche nahi honge”
Teeke se 6 mahine ke andar mar jaate hai, sarkar 60 saal se upar ke logon ko teeka de raha hai taaki pension dena band kar sakte hai,bade aspatal leke jaayenege aur wahan marenge
l personally find it difficult to empathise with beliefs people hold sometimes. I view the ability of our volunteers to empathise and respond to these concerns rationally as their biggest strength!
WHO ARE OUR VOLUNTEERS?
Our volunteer groups include some members of the community who have been associated with the organisations from before like:
- Old patients
- Collective members
- Community volunteers
Other than these groups, we also approached
- The local government representatives
- Active youth and influential members like locals who are associated with other NGOs
- The Covid surveillance team of the government which has school teachers, ASHAs, ANMs and AWWs.
HOW OUR VOLUNTEERS TOOK THIS FORWARD?
When we presented the plans to our volunteers, each one of them felt that responding to the current situation was important. Many of our volunteers were so prepared that they would step out to identify patients and provide them medicine kits the moment they were informed of their responsibilities and trained on how to do it. Within a few days, they all had their own strategies as well.
“I first gave it to my neighbour who has known me well for years. I explained to her the importance of medication and how it will help her. She was hesitant for some time, but after talking to her for a while, she agreed to try. Within a few days she was completely fine, and started thanking me. After hearing about her, more people in the neighbourhood started asking for medicines. I had to go door to door for a few days, spend hours explaining initially but now I get calls from even other villages asking for medicines.” said Jitendra, one of our volunteers.
Many other volunteers shared that they have identified a few points which work well while advising people on treatment and home care. For example, saying “Maintain some distance from everyone else in the family for a few days” instead of asking to ‘isolate’ makes a huge difference. The word ‘isolation’ has too many negative connotations here. “Our concern is to provide relief to you, not proving that you have covid” has been helpful in tackling the fear associated with being taken away to get tested or to isolation centres. Our volunteers also point at individual medicines from the kits and explain their function, since many people refuse to consume medicines when they feel that it could be ‘corona medicines’.
CHALLENGES FACED BY THE VOLUNTEERS
From our initial conversations with the volunteers, we have sensed some fear around their accountability in this initiative. “My father in law has asked me not to offer anyone these medicines since my family will be blamed if something happens to him”, said Anjana Bai, one of our volunteers. As ‘insiders’ our volunteers sometimes worry about what people think about them for identifying with a cause which most people are still not convinced with. My family fears vaccination so much that if they find out I am going to get vaccinated, it will cause a lot of drama.”, said a volunteer who was convinced that it is important to get vaccinated post a session. There is a thin line between fitting in with the rest and being ‘woke’ for these insiders.
Initially, our volunteers had concerns around efficacy of the vaccine, whether people were unwell because of covid or just some seasonal illness, about how they would be received in the community and the challenges that are going to come up. But no volunteer raised concerns around their safety as someone who will be working on the frontline in my experience, until we addressed it. Very few asked about whether they would be given anything in return for this work. The fact that fear, trust and accountability came up more than their own safety or the returns depicts the complexity.
Many of our volunteers themselves are going through difficult times given the lockdown and lack of work opportunities. Some are being questioned by their families and friends. Yet they show up every day, giving medicines to a huge number of people, persuading them to take the vaccine, and making plans to cross the hurdles coming in our way, keeping up the spirit of ‘volunteering’.