It Starts with One: A League of Ordinary Men and Women Trying to Save India Running Out of Breath

Coronavirus

It Starts with One: A League of Ordinary Men and Women Trying to Save India Running Out of Breath

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Twenty-six-year-old Ramneek Oberoi usually mans the frontdesk of a car dealership in Delhi. Much before the world was confronted with a health crisis in the form of COVID-19, Oberoi moonlighted as a coordinator for a blood donation organisation called “Blood For All”. Nothing out of the ordinary really. On a normal day, he’d keep his head low and not interfere in anyone’s business. But it’s been a while since we’ve woken up to anything that feels regular. These days, as the capital continues to gasp for breath, shrouded in the fear of the pandemic, Ramneek is on his feet from 7 am. He is not cocooned inside his home but is out on the streets, running errands. On paper, he is not a frontline worker but for the aged people of West Delhi, he is nothing short of a saviour.

Ramneek buys essentials like medicines and groceries for old people, living alone in Delhi and delivers it to their doorstep. Many of them have children living abroad, who feel helpless as they read how the city has been brought down on its knees by a killer second wave, he tells me. “I cannot sit still. There are people living abroad who are panicking about their aged parents back home; the least I can do is relieve their stress. I buy essentials for patients at home and deliver them to their doorstep. I’m not affiliated with any organisation; I go wherever the work takes me,” he says.

On paper, he is not a frontline worker but for the aged people of West Delhi, he is nothing short of a saviour.

It all started with one phone call from Canada. Far away from home, his friend who was frantic with worry about his mum and dad called Ramneek to seek help for medicines. With no heart to turn him down, he set out in search of whatever medical aid he could bring to his friend’s aged parents. Little did he know that he wouldn’t stop. Today, he has turned caregiver to many Dilliwallas who are living away from family and friends.

Ramneek has not been vaccinated; of course he is scared. But the helplessness of the old and frail, he says, pales in comparison to his fears. He is a one-man army and yet he is not alone. He is joined by hundreds of everyday Indians who have volunteered to save a nation that’s battered but not broken.

What was India’s greatest weakness is proving to be its most reckoned asset – her population. Citizens from every corner have taken it upon themselves to provide relief to those who are suffering in a country with lakhs of cases per day. We have seen flashes of this strength in unity, this mass mobilisation earlier this millennium. When Mumbai faced a deluge in 2005, it was the people who kept it afloat; all transpiring at a time without social media to guide them. In 2012, following the Delhi gang-rape tragedy, inhabitants of not just the capital but also other cities staged sit-ins to protest against the inaction by the State that pushed it to amend our rape laws.

What was India’s greatest weakness is proving to be its most reckoned asset – her population.

In 2021, as the country has been ravaged once again, maybe because we declared victory against the pandemic too soon, India has seen the rise of the Everyman – many of them millennials and Gen Z who get a bad rap for being too self-occupied. Thanks to social media, the dissemination of data pertaining to resources has been accelerated and far-reaching. Toolkits, which not too long ago, were a by-word of anti-nationalism have now become the very foundation in the country’s collective fight against COVID-19.

Witnessing the mayhem that unfolded on our social media timelines – SOS calls for oxygen, ICU beds, medicines – most of us were gripped by despair. There were a few good men and women who decided to do something about it. Who like Ramneek couldn’t stay still. Vivek Anand, a 33-year-old start-up founder from Bangalore, initiated a COVID relief database on a WhatsApp group where one could locate patients to donate funds to. After this garnered a massive response, the group could no longer house the sheer number of donors. That’s when CovidDonors was launched as a website.

It is a person-to-person platform established to bridge the distance between donors and patients in real-time. The patient needs to only fill the form corresponding to their expenditures, this is then verified by the team with the hospitals. “When the cases started multiplying in the country, I sought places where I could donate money. I then realised that there were many others like me who wanted to help. The site was launched within the week and in that period, we managed to raise ₹82 lakh so far,” says Anand. Anand currently runs this initiative in collaboration with his former colleagues and some volunteers whom he’s never personally met but knows through Twitter.

Collaborating with Anand as well as steering her own ship is Jelam Bhatt. The 25-year-old working with The Product Folks, a volunteer-driven community, started this initiative in order to streamline the panic in the country by collating all possible resources. She, along with a team, launched IndiaCovidResources which also has a separate donation wing.

They are currently equipped with over 250 volunteers and verified leads for over 1500 resources across the country. What lies at the heart of their mission is to provide people with verified hospital beds, oxygen tanks, medicines and so on. “While we have a handful of people working on-ground, we cannot compel anyone to put their lives at risk. However, some people are still willing to go the extra mile. What is really tragic in this entire ordeal is that people’s needs are outnumbering the available resources. We would also like to reach out to those in remote areas of the country where they do not have access to the Internet,” says Bhatt.

As for those who currently lack the privilege of being online, Srishty Ranjan, 24, has been personally telephoning locals from far-flung villages in Bihar and Jharkhand. Upon request, she puts them in touch with a point of contact at the nearest hospital. Her ultimate aim is to curb the information divide between metros and small towns.

I realised a common thing when I spoke to these changemakers. They all started with just one phone call, one tweet, by verifying one lead, and haven’t been able to stop since.

The COVID-19 crisis has rocked India’s boat, the casualties have become statistics, and agitated citizens are her only anchors. Interestingly, the initiatives undertaken by citizens are a scale-agnostic effort. While some are contributing north of ₹80 lakh, the others are adding to the kitty with ₹8000 through sales of their paintings, poetry, and music – a little that is going a long way. As discontentment is abound in the country, grief has emerged as an emotion that feels so private and yet ubiquitous. In a country where the flicker of the future is slowly diminishing, its people have surfaced with beacons of hope. There may be a dearth of resources in India, but not of her citizens’ indomitable spirit.

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