I tested Covid positive recently, but this is not my story …

“Positive”. I was not surprised. I had started showing symptoms. So, one evening, while returning from work, I bought basics like an oximeter, a few specific medicines and isolated myself. The initial few days were tough, but the recovery phase was tougher. I experienced “collective grief”. The images and heart-breaking stories flashing on my TV screen and mobile feed were having a devastating effect on me. However, the comforting presence of Covid warriors who took to social media to help people desperately looking for hospitals, beds, oxygen, plasma, ventilators, medicines, or Remdisivir injections was extremely reassuring. Though I was in isolation in a city I had moved into just two years back, and did not have a solid support system in place, I was confident that if I needed help, it would arrive through social media

…..

The date was April 13. It was 2 pm. The humidity was unbearable, and I was too tired to stand any longer. I looked around. Nearly 150 people waiting in the “Covid area” of a government facility in Mahanagar area of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, were getting restless. There were young children and many senior citizens, but there were no chairs or benches. All were wearing masks, but I could see fear, anxiety, and helplessness in their eyes. There was not much scope for social distancing, but somebody could have switched on the fans at least.

At 2:20 pm, a man wearing a PPE kit emerged. Another one behind him was carrying Covid test paraphernalia. Yet another man was carrying a very sarkari-looking microphone and a speaker. They disappeared into a small room. The man wearing the PPE kit opened a small window through which he would take the RT-PCR test samples. The man carrying test kits sat with a register. The man holding the microphone started calling out names.

One by one, people went to the window, got their test done, and went away. No questions were entertained. A few senior citizens requested the team to take their samples first, but they were sternly told to wait for their turn and that the names would be called out in the order in which Aadhaar numbers were registered. A notice informed us that we could log on to a Covid-specific government website the next day to know our test results.

Under normal circumstances, I would have gone to a private clinic, but as Corona cases had started spiralling in Lucknow in April, private labs succumbed under pressure. After making at least 10 calls to different private labs, I tried contacting a few paramedics who usually come home and take the samples. All the numbers were switched off. I then contacted Nikhil Sahu, a journalist, who works as a health reporter with a reputed newspaper in Lucknow. He suggested I go to this government facility as it was the closest to me. I did not know the procedure. He asked me to send him my Aadhaar details and he managed the rest. All I had to do was to go there for the test. The others did not have it this easy. One is supposed to physically go to the facility in the morning, register his/her name and Aadhaar number and return at 2 PM for the test.   

I could not have taken an Ola or an Uber, so I took my two-wheeler, followed directions on Google Map, and managed to reach the facility. The deserted roads augmented my anxiety. My mind was constantly buzzing with many “what ifs”. I shall be eternally grateful to Sahu for helping me out though we have met just once. After recovering, when I called to thank him, we talked about how April wreaked havoc on Lucknow, as it did in other cities.

“There was a sudden rise in the number of Covid cases in April first week. By the second week, nearly 5,000 people were testing positive daily. All the labs were functioning for 18 hours, yet thousands were not able to get the tests done,” said Sahu over the phone. He added: “Many healthcare workers had also tested positive, so private labs were closed. As per the government directives, nearly 50,000 tests had to be done, but only 25,000 were happening on the ground.”

Indians would like to erase April 2021 from their memories. People showing severe symptoms could not get themselves tested; more serious patients were not getting beds, ventilators, or oxygen. As per media reports, many were dying at home and the number of deaths revealed by the government was not in sync with the scenes at crematoriums across the country.

I was, like many others, so numb with grief that I consumed news like a maniac. After all, when you are isolating alone, your mobile and television are your only sources of contact with the outside world. In addition, there was a lot of Covid anxiety to deal with. In the initial days, I would wake up in the middle of the night to check my oxygen level and there were times when I felt completely helpless when the thermometer displayed “102”. One night, I dreamt that some strangers were taking me to a hospital in a blue body bag.  

Close friends living in India and abroad called and messaged regularly. “What’s the oxygen level” replaced “good morning” messages. Ex-colleagues and building-mates would send me numbers of oxygen suppliers and tiffin services and bought me groceries and medicines. Panicked family members did all they could sitting thousands of kms away. A special thanks to my landlord Subhash Pandey, 55, a Supreme Court advocate, who bought milk for me every day, and my landlady, Indu Pandey, who would call me twice a day to “entertain” me.

While I can write a book on all these kind souls, this story is not about them. This story is about those known and unknown people on social media who kept me reassured. The situation was so bad that I would often wonder whom I would approach if my oxygen level started dipping or if I needed hospitalization, or how will I help my parents who were in another city if they needed help.

I would read all the “SOS” and “Urgent Help Needed” messages on Twitter and Facebook just to understand how others were reaching out to those who needed help. When the system started crumbling, it was these ordinary men and women who put social media to good used and went out of their way to help others. As Sahu puts it very aptly: “Social media acted like one big pharmacy and a hospital. Oxygen, injections, medicines, beds, plasma, ambulances … everything was available here. People were turning to social media for help as they were getting help on these platforms.”

A Linkedin post by Kavita Pathak, Director, Jaipuria Institute of Management, posted in April is the perfect example of how strangers turned into angels. Here is the edited version of what she wrote:

“In the middle of the night, my 85-year-old father’s oxygen level started fluctuating. One oxygen cylinder reached my doorstep at 3 AM, dropped by someone whom I did not know. He was just a phone number. I got in touch with one Puja ji. One Abhishek ji who lives in Indira Nagar in Lucknow started from his place at 2:15 AM, went to Gomti Nagar where Puja ji lived, collected the oxygen cylinder and reached my place in Mahanagar area at 3 AM. Not a penny exchanged. He even called the next day to ask about my father.”

It was stories like these that kept Covid patients, and their families, hopeful amid so much gloom. People were not only tagging others who were in a position to help, they were going out of their way by personally calling oxygen suppliers and hospitals and sharing only verified numbers.

“It was a critical time and people were doing what they could do to help those who were scrambling to get beds and oxygen. We could not have miraculously built more hospitals or produced surplus oxygen, but people realized that they could help others by at least telling them where hospitals and oxygen were available,” said Mithilesh Dhar Dubey, a journalist based in Lucknow. He has been very active on social media right from the time when the second covid wave hit Uttar Pradesh and has managed to help nearly 50 people with beds, oxygen and Remdisivir injections.  

He shared a touching story with us.

“On April 21, at 10 pm, I got a call from a lady from Prayagraj. I am not sure where did she get my number from. She was crying and said her husband was Covid positive and unwell. She had managed to get him to the city 25 kms from where she was in an auto but was not getting any bed. She was seven months pregnant. I asked her to wait. Then through my sources and online resources, I found out that one hospital in Prayagraj had seven beds with oxygen cylinders. I called the hospital and confirmed. I then asked the lady to go there. There she was asked for a letter from the Chief Medical Officer, which she did not have. So, I called the District Magistrate of Prayagraj. Her husband finally got a bed. His oxygen level improved from 70 to 95. She called me the next day, thanked me and said if she has a boy, she will name him Mithilesh.”

As the number of Covid cases started spiralling across India, so did the number of posts on social media. People did not waste crucial time blaming the system or cribbing about the failed healthcare facilities. They started tagging random people who they thought were in a position to help Covid patients and their families. And these tags were not city or state-specific. Such was the power of social media that a person sitting in Mumbai could, indirectly, or through other people, help someone in need in Delhi, Jaipur or Ahmedabad.

“This is how it worked. When help was sought by someone on social media, people would randomly tag other people. Sensing the urgency, these people would do all in their capacity to help the person on their own or they would rope in more people. The entire chain would work tirelessly until the person in need got help. What was most touching was that not everyone knew everyone in this chain,” said Gaurav Girija Shukla, who lives in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, and owns a PR and brand management firm. Shukla, and others like him have, so far, through a WhatsApp group, helped more than 250 covid patients recuperating at home by providing them timely help in the form of consultation, medication or hospitalization with the help of a panel of doctors, few volunteers and 2-3 helpline executives.

Talking about how the power of social media transcended state boundaries, Shukla narrated an incident.

“One day, at around 8 pm, I got a call from a friend of mine living in Raipur. His friend had landed in Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) earlier that day from Bangalore where his brother had just moved in only to realize that his brother and his entire family were Covid positive. The brother needed hospitalization as his oxygen level was constantly dipping, but the friend did not know Jabalpur. Without wasting any moment, a bunch of us in Raipur jumped in to help. We contacted a few journalists, influencers, politicians and NGOs in Jabalpur. By 11 pm, his brother got a bed in a good hospital.”   

However, the journey was emotionally and logistically draining for these social media worriers. Twitter accounts of those who were incessantly helping people by tagging others were suspended temporarily. Some Facebook users who were trying to help received a warning. In addition, some state governments came down heavily on people who were seeking help for medical assistance of oxygen supplies for their families or friends for spreading misinformation. On April 28, a man was charged in Uttar Pradesh over oxygen SOS on Twitter for his dying grandfather.

However, on April 30, the Supreme Court warned state governments against doing so. In a strongly-worded statement, the Apex court said: “Let a strong message go across to all states that we will consider it a contempt of this court if any citizen is harassed for making a plea on social media/media for making an appeal for oxygen/beds etc. Clampdown on information contrary to basic precepts. No state can clampdown on information.”

These restrictions have not stopped people from helping each other. However, fatigue has set in. People feel anxious and frustrated when they are not able to help anyone.

Last year, Daya Sagar, a journalist based in Lucknow, helped migrant labourers who were walking back home by providing them with cooked food, milk and water, and daily wagers with dry ration. “As a journalist, I couldn’t have just covered these stories. I had to help those people. By doing so I got in touch with a lot of people, communities, and groups on social media. So, this year, when people needed medical help, these networks enabled me to immediately start helping people. It is hugely satisfying when I manage to help people, but some days are frustrating,” he said.

In May first week, he wrote a Facebook post saying: “Now I don’t feel like giving false promises to people. I have exhausted most of my ground resources, but people are still not getting beds or ventilators. At times, even after dialling 10 numbers, we do not get a positive response from doctors. Even plasma donors are difficult to find. In cities like Delhi or Mumbai people are aware, so they help. But in smaller towns, people are still not thinking beyond themselves. It has become exhausting. Now, if I am not able to help someone, by evening I start feeling guilty.”

Sahu’s quote sums up this feeling. “I tried to help as many people as I could. But there were times when people died because I could not help them. I feel especially terrible when I am not able to help young patients. On such days, I sit in my room and cry,” he said.

What kindness meant in 2020

The Good Story Project with the help of artist Vidya Vivek brings together a piece that talks about the role of compassion and kindness during Covid-19

The Good Story Project started in the midst of the pandemic. Many of the stories that it featured reflected in part, what was happening around us because of Covid-19. Now, as a new year has begun, we thought we could use this opportunity to reflect on the issues and things that really mattered, those that left an impact on us and will guide us in the years to come.

And that is why, we decided to focus on kindness. The reason is, that without acts of kindness this year would have been even more terrible than what it was. And whether pandemic or not, kindness needs to be in abundant supply.

This piece is on how kindness impacts us as people, and a few examples of how it mattered when nothing else seemed to work or make sense.

Cooking and feeding — an act of love and kindness like no other

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

A colleague’s mother recently received a voice message on WhatsApp. She had sent daily dabbas of home-cooked meals to her neighbour, who had caught Covid-19 and was too sick to get up and cook for herself. Every day, till her neighbour recovered, the colleague’s mother would place containers of simple, hot, nutritious meals outside her door. Once the neighbour was declared Covid negative, she sent a message. You can hear her voice, choking with emotions when she says she would never forget this kindness and that she would never be able to repay it back, but it meant so much to her. And that, out of all the neighbours and residents in the residential society where they lived, only the colleague’s mother had the foresight and the willingness to reach out and help.

Hearing the voice-note set us thinking. Imagine the power all of us have, the power to make a real difference by simply cooking in our kitchens and handing out meals to those who need it the most. It could be an elderly neighbour, a person living on his or her own, someone who is sick and exhausted or a family who has faced bereavement.

The pandemic has brought into clear focus the role food plays in our life, and also the disparity that exists in the world around us — so many people have full pantries and so many struggle to place three square meals on the table. And perhaps that is why, feeding people — those who were sick and unable to cook, those who needed help with their meals because they were elderly or homeless, or simply just unable to fend for themselves — was so important and impactful during the pandemic.

We could all do more of it in 2021.

If we know someone who could do with a home-cooked meal once in a while, all we have to do is to cook a little bit extra from what we are cooking for ourselves. Like Anthony O’Shaughnessy who cooked for his elderly neighbour during the lockdown in England or the way Rohit Suri, cooked meals for his tenant Kaushik Barua, a 30-year-old critical care doctor at a private hospital in Delhi.

Can we get you something?

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

Sometimes, we wonder how we can help someone else, bound as we are with our own unique personal challenges and limitations.

Here’s an example that might inspire you. My mother is blind, and she lives on her own with the help of two helpers. During the lockdown, her electrician called her up and said, to her, “Baa (grandmother), do not venture out of your house. My nephew lives in a society near to you, and so give me a call and he will deliver anything that you need and leave it outside your door.” And true to his word, his nephew helped my mother at a time when she and her caretakers were fearful of stepping outside the home. (The mother in reference here is the mother of one of the founders of The Good Story Project — Prerna Shah).

In a similar way, kindness was also brought home during the pandemic when countless people across the world thought about other people — people who may need help, and came up with innovative ideas and solutions. For instance, there were community groups, like My Block, My Hood, My City, (in Chicago, United States), which helped arrange for and deliver groceries and care packages for elderly neighbours.

It is empowering to realize that even with our personal limitations, we can help someone by doing something as simple as fetching their groceries while we fetch ours.

Every little counts, give what you can

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

So many people fundraised. People who had fundraised before, people who were novices. Fundraised for PPE gear, food packages for the poor, ventilators and other life-saving equipment for hospitals — and all of that made a difference. We found it incredibly inspiring and comforting to come across news reports and stories of people who campaigned and fundraised and then made these funds available to those who needed it the most — in the form of services, food, resources, medicines and a variety of other essential items.

On a personal level, we knew and were able to interview (for other publications) some very lovely individuals who stepped up to the many challenges of the pandemic and decided to fundraise so that funds could quickly reach people and organisations. One of the very moving accounts we heard was from a lady in Bangalore who had ventured out of her house to feed the stray dogs in her area during one of the lockdowns. When she was feeding the strays, several children came up to her, and asked her for the food she was placing on the pavement. She explained, that this was food for the dogs, and but they replied that they were so hungry that it did not matter. She rushed home and cooked a huge pot of khichdi and went back to the kids. From that day onwards, she started fundraising and working with like-minded individuals to run a kitchen that would feed hungry children living off the streets.

I am here to help, in any way that I can

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

We cannot even begin to count the ways people were able to be there for others — even despite the many restrictions that the pandemic imposed.

Sometimes, it was by taking up work and duties that most of us would be very hesitant to do. Like the duties that Abdul Rehman Malbari performed. Malbari, is the president of Ekta Trust, a Surat-based NGO, which has been providing funeral services for abandoned and unclaimed bodies for the past three decades. However, during the pandemic, he and his team went above and beyond the call of duty. During the months of April and May, they were ferrying 150 patients daily. Their job was to transport the deceased from the hospitals and homes and take them to crematoriums. Malbari and his team did not go home for weeks, and albeit they had PPE kits and safety precautions in place, it does warrant a question — how many of us would be willing to do what he and his team of volunteers did?

There were also goodwill gestures and simple acts of thoughtfulness. Remember the teary-eyed face of Karan Puri from Panchkula, Haryana? He turned 71 amid the lockdown. Puri was on his own as his children live abroad. One of his relatives contacted the Panchkula police via Twitter requesting to celebrate his birthday as he was alone at home. When the Panchkula police reached his home with a cake, Puri got very emotional and broke down in tears.

Some of these acts of kindness have been captured in words, or in videos or photographs and some are between the doer and the receiver. But what matters in the end is that these acts made a difference.

We need to continue with kindness, we need to do more

If there’s anything that we need more of, not just for 2021 but for the years to follow as well, it is kindness and compassion. In any way, or shape or form that we can.

The World Bank has said that Covid-19 was responsible for 71 million to 100 million additional people falling into extreme poverty in 2020. And the figures are getting updated.

People are hungry. People are unemployed. Lonely, grieving, anxious.

Let us just do what we can. Keep in touch with a friend who we know is feeling isolated or low; give what we can to a fundraiser, help someone with a referral or assignment if they are facing unemployment or a loss of income, listen with empathy when someone shares their troubles and simply remember the power that each of us carry within ourselves.

All of us can do something. And it matters.

On that note, we would be delighted if you are able to share any acts of kindness that you have encountered during the pandemic and if you are in turn inspired to pass it on in 2021. As they say, goodness must travel.

Do write in.