COVID-19 survivors’ tales: grit, gumption and abiding hope

Coronavirus | Grief, groceries, all shared in this fight

Tapesh Nagaria is reaching out through the Human Solidarity Foundation helpline. Photo: Special Arrangement  

On Thursday, Pritam Singh helped cremate a 24-year-old man. But that wasn’t his worst experience over the past year. He remembers having to carry the body of a man past his young son, saying they were just taking him into a hospital emergency. “The family had told us not to reveal that his father had died,” he says.


Mr. Singh and his team of seven, has, over the past year, supported free of cost, about 400 families struggling to perform the last rites of kin who have died of COVID-19. “Usually, when we go to a house, there are only two or three people. At the most, neighbours will come out of their homes when we are putting the body into the ambulance, but otherwise, there is no one to help,” says the 48-year-old, who heads United Sikhs. The lack of support from those they thought they could lean on and the breakdown in government machinery is what both angers and grieves people, he says.

Mr. Singh and his team have helped with Hindu and Sikh cremations and Muslim and Christian burials, but feel bad that they have to turn down many people simply because they have neither the volunteers nor the vehicles. Last year, the daily calls were four or five; this year, it is 18-20.

For a group of men who work at their businesses or in IT, their ages ranging from 20s-40s, dealing with death every day has not been easy. “Hum roz rote hain (we cry every day),” Mr. Singh says.

In Gurugram, Honey Tandon, who started Helping Hands to provide meals, says people are donating in kind — flour, pulses and fruit.

Even as Mr Singh starts his day at 6:30 a.m. in West Delhi’s Tilak Nagar, in Gurugram dietician Honey Tandon packs breakfast for a few guards and people who live outside her condo gates. She quickly gives her father and son the same food and rushes out.

Ms. Tandon began Helping Hands free of cost for those in her building who got COVID and a few workers who had planned to go back their villages. “Soon people in other parts of Gurgaon started asking for home cooked meals, so I began charging ₹100 per meal, from those who can afford it,” she says. For those who can’t, it’s free.

In the three weeks that Helping Hands has been operational, it has provided about 30 meals each for lunch and dinner, with fewer for breakfast. People have started reaching out with donations in kind – flour, pulses and fruit.

“My husband buys the groceries, and my father begins cutting the vegetables in the morning,” Ms Tandon says, adding that she spends a lot of time in the kitchen. She confesses she hasn’t really cooked on a regular basis till the recent crisis. “My husband joked that people wouldn’t be able to eat the rotis, but they’re getting better,” she says, laughing.

The Tandon couple deliver every meal in their car or on an electric scooter that EVeez has lent them. Now Ms. Tandon has started a fund raiser so she can feed more people.

While she has been able to sustain the service for some time, a number of people like Ruby, 23, find it difficult. Now posted as a vaccine volunteer with the Civil Defence in the Maulana Azad Medical College centre, Ms. Ruby’s reasons for offering her services are a mix of being pragmatic and wanting to help. She is honest: “I love to wear the uniform,” she says.

She lost her job as a receptionist, and a friend suggested she join the Civil Defence. In the central district, she is one of 5,922 volunteers. She gets a daily allowance of ₹763, and has a 9 to 5 shift, but says as a first responder in various crisis situations, a lot of the work is “nishkam seva” (service without the expectation of receiving anything in return).

“I will continue to do this if I can, if my family is ok with it,” she says, understanding that she also needs to contribute to her family of mother, three sisters and two brothers.

Doctor on call

Serving Delhi from fae away Durg, in Chhattisgarh is Dr. Tapesh Nagaria, who works with the Human Solidarity Foundation helpline (9971736222). Having taken a gap year to study for his post graduate entrance exams, he thought it a good opportunity to both help people and gain some experience. “I was really nervous, because medical school doesn’t prepare you for the real world,” he says.

The real world here was a host of different things — of a new disease that doctors themselves were grappling with, of the fact that even when he knew the patient needed to be in a hospital there were none to be had, and of people sharing medication lists with each other and self-medicating.

“What do you do when a drug is not available? Or when an HRCT is needed but I will be putting another life in danger because the patient will not go alone to a hospital? Or when I need to prescribe blood thinners, but these are ideally given only when a doctor can monitor the patient?” He prefers to err on the side of least medication, and also makes sure his prescription is watermarked with the name of the patient, so it can’t be forwarded. “It’s been a very steep learning curve.”

About 70% of callers to the network of about 30 doctors are from Delhi, though the helpline is open to people across India, free of cost.

Youth brigade

The phone is everyone’s lifeline, even as lockdowns put a pause on movement. An NGO, Caregiver Saathi, is using phones to verify information related to COVID-19, so caregivers have lists of ambulances, blood banks, and other resources that work. They put out a call for volunteers and 44 children — all under 18 — registered. Many had had their own experiences with COVID and wanted to help.

In Bengaluru, Nimisha Maria Nishant, 15, who heads the teams for Haryana, says the first time someone died and she couldn’t source information in time, she broke down. “It was emotionally exhausting, but my team mates helped me.”

Fellow volunteer, Gurgaon-based Mahira Vohra, 16, says, “When leadership fails to provide us with even basic healthcare, it’s upto us to make the community better; to step up and do something.”

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 1:51:00 AM |

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