COVID 19 Volunteering Chennai

Volunteers are not automatons

Volunteers distribute masks. Photo: Velankanni Raj B  

The frontline makes unique demands on those occupying it. It forces them to go where most others have dared not to go. Under the weight of the responsibilities it imposes on them, frontliners make sacrifices, even to the point of putting their personal safety on the line. That aptly describes the situation of pandemic frontliners. The nature of their work makes stress, frustration and anxiety unavoidable.

So, the question is: How do volunteers on the frontline help themselves deal with these factors as they go about helping others?

Volunteers from Jain International Trade Organisation’s (JITO) youth wing have been juggling between their professional commitments and volunteering activities, which include supplying oxygen concentrators to those needing it and and running a COVID helpline with a doctor responding to people’s questions.

Happiness challenge

As the last two months had been hard on the volunteers, JITO Chennai Chapter organised a seven-day happiness challenge for them on Instagram. JITO’s youth wing chairman Antriksh Tatia explains that by the time the challenge drew to a close, on June 11, the volunteers had been through an art event, a cooking challenge, and daily fun video-posting exercise. The icing on the cake was “Papa Kehte Hai Bada Naam Karega”, a challenge that required participants to dig out old certificates and relive those good old days.

It was a big stress-buster, says Antriksh who shares his personal fear, one that crops up every time he goes out COVID-19 volunteering work.

“My mom is diabetic and has a lung issue. I take all precautions when I step out but every time I return home I am paranoid about being the carrier of the virus,” says Antriksh.

During May, volunteers of Uravugal Trust were cremating 30-35 bodies a day, a majority of them having been marked “unclaimed” by hospitals.

Khaalid Ahmed, the founder of the Trust, points out that the volunteers were encouraged to meet in small groups of four or five to deal with the emotion that springs from witnessing so much gloom.

“We would meet at a roadside corner, outside the Omandurar Government Hospital Mortuary or on Marina Beach Road. The place does not really matter: It is just about opening up, and the sharing really helps,” says Ahmed.

“With a reduction in the calls for help, we now organise informal meet-ups kept small to ensure social distancing. A meet-up is not complete without biriyani.”

At the Trust’s office in Choolaimedu, volunteers unwind over a game of ludo. “Truth be told, in May, there was little time to play the board game, as SOS calls were relentlessly unceasing,” says Ahmed, who is in his twenties.

May was indeed a cruel month, hard on all sections; and that particularly includes the volunteers.

On the challenges it posed, Ajith Kumar R, co-founder, Thuli, a non-profit, says, “When hospital beds were hard to come by, we arranged them for critically-ill COVID-positive people. In some cases, after getting a bed for a patient going through a lot of trouble, we would learn from the family that the patient found admission elsewhere. When this happens, the next time in a similar situation, the hospital sources would not accommodate our requests for other patients.”

The volunteers discovered that handling non-stop calls from panic-stricken family members asking for oxygen concentrators required the highest degree of compassion.

C Vasanth Kumar of Kadamai Education and Social Welfare, which pressed autorickshaws and bikes fitted with oxygen cylinders into service, has not been home in the last one-and-a-half months. He and some of the other members of the voluntary organisation are camping at its office in Tondiarpet.

“My nine-year-old daughter was counting down to my birthday,” says Kumar, adding that the celebration had to be virtual as he continued to stay at the office to avoid exposing his family to any risk of infection.

“When the cases were on the rise, 42 oxygen-fitted vehicles were on the rounds, and our phones would be constantly buzzing, even late into the night,” says Kumar. “Most of the team members were not even able to each other. Now, we meet and the best way to relax is share experiences and have a meal together.”

Gratitude matters

For many volunteers, a word of gratitude from those they have helped is enough to lift their spirits. Gratitude energises the receiver. Two sisters from Anna Nagar — Preethi Esther Emmanuel and Grace Priyadarshini Emmanuel — were sharing life-saving information with the COVID-hit and their families, through their Instagram handles.

Now, these handles brim with gratitude messages, numerous enough to make up a journal, from people who have benefited from their volunteering work.

Ajith Kumar terms the messages of gratitude, a powerful motivator: “I have been calling the patients almost every day, enquiring about their well-being. But when I took a break they started calling me. I cannot describe the happiness I feel when this happens.”


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 11:39:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/volunteers-are-not-automatons/article34795035.ece

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