2020 in review: The year that was

2020 was also a year of immense kindness

For 10-year-old Shafia who lives in a village near Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, weekly video calls with her teacher had been the only channel of viewing the outside world when lockdown was announced. She would count the days to chat with her Sandhya teacher and know more about what’s going on in this world. Thanks to lessons over video calls by Visakhapatnam-based teacher Sandhya Venugopal Godey.

Sandhya has been teaching children like these from economically backward families since lockdown. She began in April when schools were shut and she saw uncertainty around the education of many children from low-income families, especially without access to smart phones to continue online classes.

Sandhya Venugopal Godey

Sandhya Venugopal Godey  

The pandemic has seen an unprecedented opening of hearts. As governments streamlined processes, protocols and resources when COVID-19 struck and lockdown was announced, people stepped in making masks and sanitisers, providing hunger relief and services. These people don’t see it as charity, it is ‘responsibility’ or a social contract between humans that demands we look out for each other.

Volunteering, in times of crises, usually demands being physically present. This pandemic changed the rules with physical distancing being a mandatory precaution. Donations — monetary and material — grew with technology being put to use to coordinate work. Physical help — getting supplies — became a necessity especially for senior citizens. Housing and apartment societies stepped in, younger residents shopped and ran errands.

Social contract

Sangeeta Menon, who works in the social sector, remembers the relentless flow of migrant labourers walking back home to various parts of the country when lockdown was announced in March. Living in an apartment complex on Mumbai’s arterial Lal Bahadur Shastri (LBS) Marg, she saw first-hand the exodus as people started a trek back home which would cost some their lives. “It was shocking to see the endless flow of people walking long distances in the blazing hot summer months. There is no way you could step out and not see people on the roads — sleeping, walking…” she says. The scene on the railway tracks behind the complex was no different.

2020 was also a year of immense kindness

On seeing the plight of those walking, she with a few like-minded people got together and raised a couple of lakh rupees within an hour or two, bought essentials such as water, bananas, biscuit and snacks and began distribution. The team continued their work, volunteering and raising funds, even helping those stuck in railway stations.

Her explanation for the work, without thinking about her own safety, is “I couldn’t have sat back and watched!”

Sangeeta Menon

Sangeeta Menon  

People like Sangeeta and Sandhya are among many across the country who stepped up, helped and just as quietly stepped back into anonymity.

Being responsible for each other

Social worker and clinical psychologist PA Mary Anitha swung into action distributing food to the homeless in Kochi. Every day, for almost two months, she cooked, helped by her three children, and distributed 100 packets of food. “Where would they go for food? Everything just shut. Even policemen were having a tough time in the initial days, they didn’t have water to drink or chairs to sit on. The Government was figuring out the modalities, until then I thought I would do my bit,” she says. She also distributed snacks to policemen. Anitha, who runs the Centre For Empowerment and Enrichment (CFEEE) that works with the differently-abled, roped in her volunteers for the effort.

Social worker Mary Anitha (in yellow) handing over the baby to his mother in Kochi

Social worker Mary Anitha (in yellow) handing over the baby to his mother in Kochi   | Photo Credit: ThulasiKakkat

Anitha was in the news for going into quarantine with a six-month old baby, Eldin whose parents tested positive for COVID-19, and fostered him till his parents were fully recovered. Since the baby ran a risk of contracting the disease, she first spent almost a week in the isolation ward with him before moving out closer home where she rented an apartment and stayed with Eldin till his parents recovered.

Why did she volunteer? Wasn’t being charitable during such times risky?

“This is not charity, it is my responsibility,” she says.

Roopa George, social entrepreneur from Kochi, got people together across social media platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook to garner help. When online classes started, she spread the word among her network of friends getting them to donate money towards buying television sets and mobile phones for school children from less privileged families. Between June and July, she facilitated donations of 50-55 television sets to St. Sebastian Higher Secondry School, Gothuruth (Kochi). “So that there wouldn’t be dropouts, that children from low-income groups would continue their education,” she says.

Education challenge

Education saw one of the biggest challenges this year, with apprehensions about increase in the number dropouts. Sandhya says, “I thought I could teach them English in engaging ways, and also perhaps prevent these kids from dropping out.” She started teaching online from April for the children of Visakhapatnam-based Prema Samajam school, where a majority of children hail from low-income group families. “Many families had just one smart phone and, in most cases, it was with the father, a daily wage labourer, who would be out the whole day,” says Sandhya, who gave a few kids smart phones so that they could attend online classes. She began volunteering with Chennai-based group Let’s Teach English, in June, wherein she conducts weekly one-on-one classes with students from different cities.

Roopa George (in red tunic) donating a television set to a school

Roopa George (in red tunic) donating a television set to a school  

Roopa says, “It is simply about showing that you care, especially when faced with tough times such as now,” she says. When curbs eased, she began visiting senior citizens especially women and giving them flowers. “It was a very lonely time even for the young, imagine being a senior cooped up in your apartment or house ? I just wanted to show them that there were people who cared, that they were not alone,” she says.

These people stepped in when they saw a need, but for some like Sandhya it helped personally by inducing a sense of well-being, “This experience is deeply satisfying. These classes with my little students were weekly doses of positivity at a time when we all were surrounded by bad news,” says Sandhya.

For animals

For Parvathy Mohan who works with strays and abandoned animals in Thiruvananthapuram lockdown was a very difficult time. She is project officer (Kerala) for the Federation of Indian Animal Protection. Abandoned pets were everywhere, each night she would be out patrolling roads rescuing animals.

Parvathy Mohan with a rescued pup

Parvathy Mohan with a rescued pup  

“My first thought was what would happen to the animals without food,” she says. When she wasn’t rescuing dogs, she was feeding around 300 of these daily. She put out a word on her Facebook page a couple of days into lockdown and donations — rice, meat and other supplies — started pouring in. “People were very generous during the lockdown; the donations were unlike other times. Perhaps everybody understood that this is a very different, difficult time,” she says.

Volunteers feeding strays dogs during lockdown

Volunteers feeding strays dogs during lockdown  

The takeaways have been many from this difficult year. Sangeeta observed that people are willing to contribute. “Many people want to contribute and help but they don’t know how. You just show the way and they will happily help,” she says.

(Inputs from Nivedita Ganguly)

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 9:21:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/despite-this-years-many-challenges-regular-folk-across-the-country-pulled-their-weight-and-helped-those-who-needed-help/article33455738.ece

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