Working on the frontlines of COVID-19 crisis can take mental toll on volunteers

How to deal with the anxiety, helplessness, and frustration that rankles volunteers at the frontlines of the socio-economic crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic

“When all this is over, I might need some counselling. The things we have seen… It has been traumatising,” says Ahtesham Al Haque. The Delhi-resident doesn’t recall a single day since March 24, that he sat down to relax, content.

As the socio-economic aspect of the COVID-19 crisis revealed itself, and the first wave of migrants started walking back home in the absence of any transport, shelter or security, Ahtesham and his friends, have been one of the many citizen action groups that emerged in response. These volunteers work with community kitchens and other NGOs and collectives, to deliver rations, cooked meals, and health kits to those unable to access them.

Over a phone call from Jamia Nagar, Ahtesham, an independent political strategist, says he is just returning from distributing rations to families in Shaheen Bagh. Like him, many other volunteers have day jobs, and yet, there is hardly anything part-time about volunteering.

Hamesha ek bechaini hoti hai (There is always some anxiety),” says Siddhant Mhatre, a volunteer with Yuva, in Panvel, Navi Mumbai. The 22-year-old has been spending his days packing and handing out snacks of biscuits and chiwda (a flattened rice snack) to migrants on their journey home, on the Mumbai-Nashik road, and manning a helpline for daily wage labourers.

Working on the frontlines of COVID-19 crisis can take mental toll on volunteers

“It’s not like you can finish your volunteer work, and just forget about it; you take it home with you at night,” he says. “Even now I can see those two kids in front of my eyes.” He is referring to an incident from a couple of days ago, when they went distributing rations. “We ran out of stock, but there were these two kids who climbed up on our truck, asking for food. We had to turn them away after just giving them some water.”

Siddhant is plagued by the worry that these were just two kids who could come up to them and ask. There’s no knowing how many there are who have not been able to. “We go out and do what we can, we finish our work, but what happens after that?” he wonders aloud.

The scale of it

The anxiety of feeling helpless against the whole scale of the pandemic is an overarching issue among those volunteering. Says Ahtesham, “Say I go out and deliver ration once. I can’t come back and think I have done something good. Five minutes later, there will be another call.”

There have been days he and his friends have delivered, until 2 am, and 80 to 90 bags of ration daily. “At some point, you think, this is not the type of stuff citizens are supposed to do,” he says, adding that it exposes much larger systemic flaws. Given they aren’t part of an NGO where it could be more systematic, the exhaustion is greater.

For first-time volunteers...
  • The thoughts you will have during a crisis will be more existential in nature — your circumstances are clashing with your long-held priorities — making compartmentalising harder. An acknowledgement will validate your emotions.
  • Process your thoughts to see what kind of reaction they bring up. A lot of times, when we see something that shakes up the certainty with which we see the world, we want to shut ourselves to it, which leads to emotional avoidance. And that is the reason behind anxiety and depression.
  • Do not be judgemental of yourself or others. Whatever you are doing is because it makes personal sense to you, and adds to how you view your life and yourself.
  • Your anger is valid, but when you want to engage in conversations with those not helping, be open, welcoming and vulnerable. If you put them on the defensive, they are not likely to come back.
  • Your focus should be on what you are doing and not what will happen. Your goal is not to eradicate hunger, but to feed 10 people. Understanding limitations, setting realistic expectations will help you stay in the present.
  • Extend self-compassion, have an identity of yourself outside volunteer work.
  • (With Inputs from Mumbai-based psychologist Sadaf Vidha)

Twenty-eight-year-old educator, Abdul Raheem, managed to get home to Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, in the first week of March. Previously involved in helping the homeless during Delhi’s winter, he was able to predict the challenges an extended lockdown could throw up. He, along with three others, started RAHI (Rampur Against Hunger and Infection). They collect funds and distribute rations, soap, washing powder, and health kits, including sanitary napkins on demand.

“We had initially collected around ₹20,000. But it turned out to be nothing, the way it got used up so fast! We were quite anxious about how to proceed — we had just set out to help a little.” Adding to the stress of looking for donors and not being able to say no to people in need, in the first week of RAHI, Abdul had heated arguments with his family, related to his safety. “They are parents. They are bound to worry,” he says, understandingly.

Taking a break

Ahtesham refuses to call up his friends and discuss what he sees in his volunteer work. “Everyone has their own problems. With the situation we are in, I don’t think that would be right of me.”

There are friends on social media, of course — but social media itself can be overstimulating. “I actually stay away from Twitter and Instagram as much as possible. You have one section of people showing off their culinary skills, another section conducting webinars, and right next to it are images of walking migrants. It’s too disturbing.”

Working on the frontlines of COVID-19 crisis can take mental toll on volunteers

Of them all, it is the online activism with no on-ground aid that bothers him the most. “I get that you share news to draw more attention to it, yes. But that will take time, things won’t change overnight because of your posts, they still need food right now. Even if you can’t donate money, you can still help out on the ground,” he says.

The frustration is evident in his voice, but he calms down soon. “That’s why to relax, the first thing I do after going back home is take a shower, and sit with a book in my hand. For two hours, I focus just on that and nothing else. It’s the only time when I am not thinking about what is going on outside.”

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 10:13:19 AM |

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