“On some days, we succeed in helping people and on others... we just fail,” says Somu Anand, a Master’s student doubling up as a relief volunteer in Bihar’s Saharsa.
As we speak over the phone, he chokes up, pauses for a bit and then goes on, “I remember this woman who called me at around midnight. For several minutes, she just kept crying as she pleaded with me to save her husband. It was much later that I was able to help her catch a breath.”
“She then told me what her requirements were. Luckily, we reached her husband in time and he is healthy now. But these instances are rare. Most people we set out to help die before we even find their address,” he adds.
More than 1,200 km from Delhi, Saharsa is a small city near the eastern bank of the Kosi river. With little to no penetration of Twitter and other social media platforms, people in the city and nearby villages are heavily dependent on a network of volunteers like Anand and local NGOs for COVID-related help.
As the second wave of coronavirus continues to expose India’s already overwhelmed healthcare infrastructure, people in rural and semi-urban settings are on the other side of the country’s digital divide.
Not very far from Saharsa – in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh – Harshit, a social worker, is coordinating for coronavirus relief work with residents of Sitapur, a semi-urban setting on the outskirts of Lucknow.
Harshit tells us that social media doesn’t help much when it comes to connecting with people in small cities and villages in the hinterland.
A System For The Privileged, By The Privileged
Further elaborating his point, Harshit says how a big part of his every day job is to help people do basic things, like register for COVID tests and vaccines.
With registrations taking place online, most of them are unable to access anything beyond Facebook or WhatsApp on the internet and language acts as a huge barrier in this process.
“Social media doesn’t really help in rural areas and there are several reasons behind that, language barrier being one of them. Whatever relief-related conversation you see on Twitter or Instagram is in English, only volunteers who are able to communicate in English are posting leads on social media. In fact, even internal communication between volunteers is in English.”Harshit, social worker from Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh
In fact, according to Anand, most people in rural areas of Bihar are alien to the concept of Twitter. While he says that WhatsApp has helped him and his team to circulate their contacts, most of the relief work happens over telephone calls and in person – which, in turn, is more exhausting.
“People in villages are alien to Twitter, they have no idea that a medium like that exists where they can ask for help. During the initial phase of the pandemic, we compiled a list of volunteers working in different districts of Bihar, which had their names and contact details. We circulated it through WhatsApp and Facebook, which are relatively more popular and have a deeper penetration in rural areas.”Somu Anand, COVID Volunteer from Saharsa in Bihar
Logistical Issues Are Crippling COVID Response in Rural Areas
Seema Buckshee runs an NGO in Mumbai. The Manjhi Development Foundation, which she established in 2018, has been actively working for COVID relief since coronavirus first struck India in March 2020.
This year, however, Buckshee and her team is focused on the rural areas – small towns and villages in Maharashtra and elsewhere.
Buckshee says that unlike urban areas, people in villages and small town cannot ask for help on one-on-one basis. “Because they can’t reach out for help, the challenge is for us to reach them,” she says.
Her colleague Ashish tells us that the biggest challenge they are facing this year is that of availability of equipment and the logistics, which includes transportation.
“When you try to procure equipment, there are places which have a waiting period of over a month for oxygen cylinders. This becomes an issue because when the need is now, you cannot tell people to wait for a month. Further, the equipment is very expensive.”
Buckshee and Ashish both tell how there are very few vendors in rural areas, and urban vendors don’t want to travel that far.
“There are very few vendors in rural areas and urban vendors don’t want to travel so much. Further, there is no fluidity in the system. Too many checks and blockades, even though the need is immediate. Our dispatch of oxygen concentrators to Sangli was delayed by 10 days which can turn out to be fatal in current circumstances.”Seema Buckshee, Founder-Director, Manjhi Development Foundation
But Their Troubles Don’t End Here
Ashish further says that a conversation with a volunteer on ground revealed to him how, because of lack of awareness, many people in villages and small towns ignore initial signs of coronavirus as just a common flu.
“Due to the myths around coronavirus, most people ignore the initial signs. And by the time they realise that it’s COVID, it becomes a life-and-death situation. In most cases, the nearest hospital is usually in a neighbouring town. It would take a few hours to take the patient there. That is where we come into picture. Our effort is to provide critical care equipment to NGOs so that patients can be transported to nearby hospitals.”Ashish, Volunteer at Manjhi Development Foundation
Misinformation around the causes, symptoms and vaccine for the virus is what Somu Anand and Harshit deal with every day in Saharsa and Sitapur. “The trouble starts with something as basic as convincing people in villages to wear masks,” says Anand.
“A popular perception about coronavirus in the rural society is that it is a disease of the rich. However, now that cases are increasing in the rural parts, people are understanding the gravity of the situation. But I’d still say that they are not taking it as seriously as it should be taken. It’s business as usual for them. There aren’t a lot of testing facilities, and people don’t want to get tested because they fear that if results are positive, they will have to isolate themselves,” he adds.
To deal with this issue, Anand and other volunteers with the help of district administration have installed sound systems on rickshaws, jeeps and cycles which are driven around by volunteers announcing SOPs and busting popular myths around the virus and its transmission.
Harshit, on the other hand, details how trouble for him and his team of volunteers begins from convincing people to wear masks, asking those affected by the virus to get quarantined, to travelling almost 120 km from Sitapur to Barabanki to get oxygen cylinders refilled.
“People in urban settings are facing problems around costing of medical equipment. The problem in villages and small towns is compounded by the fact that the equipment is not available locally and has to be purchased from a nearby town/city, which raises the price by another few thousand rupees. In Sitapur, approximately 90 km from Lucknow, there is not one shop which sells heavy medical equipment.”Harshit, Social Worker from Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh
“A huge problem in rural areas is that people don’t adhere to the lockdown. Their work is seasonal in nature, so they cannot stay at home and wait for a couple of months to water their fields or sell their crops in the market,” Harshit says.
Moreover, they don’t visit a doctor easily, and if they do, they are usually quacks.
“It’s only when the condition worsens that a doctor is consulted and even then, it’s usually a quack,” he says. “It’s a vicious cycle that they are trapped in!”