COVID Warriors’ Fight Against the Pandemic in Himachal Pradesh

Documentary: Here’s how the small Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh fought the COVID outbreak.

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The Indian prime minister put 1.3 billion Indians in a strict lockdown, with a mere four-hour notice. I couldn’t fathom the gravity of the coronavirus-induced pandemic from a small Himalayan city. But as the weeks rolled by, I decided it was safer to film in a sparsely populated town than the cities of India which were struggling to control the spread of COVID-19.

Munmun Dhalaria shooting 'Covid Response' in Himachal Pradesh.
Munmun Dhalaria shooting 'Covid Response' in Himachal Pradesh.
(Photo: Munmun Dhalaria)

Thus began my journey into making ‘COVID response ~ A Himalayan Story’, a 25-minute documentary on the ongoing global pandemic and how it affects my hometown. Himachal Pradesh is relatively privileged state within India, in terms of our low population and higher human development index. But we still had thousands of migrants who wanted to go back home after the curfew was lifted. The government asked them to apply for e-passes, a tough ask since most of them have no access to technology. As the central government was coming up with reactionary measures like this, I was pleased to see our local bureaucrats, doctors and the police becoming more humane. Most tried their best to minimise the damage caused by one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

Kamla Devi, an ASHA worker in Palampur, checking people for COVID and TB symptoms.
Kamla Devi, an ASHA worker in Palampur, checking people for COVID and TB symptoms.
(Photo: Munmun Dhalaria)

There was a time when the health workers were trying to stop a community spread within the state, and I was privileged to film doctors, psychiatrists and nurses on the frontline to tackle exponentially increasing COVID cases and its many affects on the mental health of the community.

I was most impressed by the generosity of some individuals and organisations who rose up at this difficult time, taking charge of things that the government couldn’t execute on its own. The lockdown highlighted the dark reality of how we treat the country’s displaced migrant population. With factories and construction work being shut, migrants were stranded with no pay, mounting bills and an urge to return to a safe place where they would be taken care of in case they contracted the disease. Their plea was to go home.

At the Palampur bus stop in Himachal Pradesh, I met Aditi Vajpeyi, as she facilitated the last group of stranded migrants return to their hometowns in government-initiated Shramik trains leaving for Jharkhand. An environmentalist with Himdhara collective on any non-pandemic year, Aditi volunteered with the Himachal Pradesh Workers Solidarity group to make sure that migrants were reached out to, and that they faced no confusion on this arduous journey back to their villages.

Aditi Vajpeyi coordinates between registered migrant workers and the local transport officials, pleading them to leave no-one behind.
Aditi Vajpeyi coordinates between registered migrant workers and the local transport officials, pleading them to leave no-one behind.
(Photo: Munmun Dhalaria)

The Himachal Pradesh Worker’s Solidarity Group came together to help migrants during this pandemic. It wasn’t merely the most marginalised that are affected by the coronavirus. Some of the more established industries like tourism have crumbled due to the economic lockdown and Nalin Chandra from of Blossom’s Village resort, gave me an insight into his struggles in his hospitality venture.

The film is a critical look at the various ways in which people’s suffering – mental, physical and financial – has been worsened by the novel coronavirus. But the experience of filming organisations like Gunjan, gave me immense hope for our community and India’s resilience at large. I chose to showcase the work of Gunjan Community radio, to celebrate Himachal Pradesh’s self-reliance and resilience. Young artists like Meenakshi Sharma and Rohit Vohra were working hard through the pandemic with surprising levels of humour and generosity.

Behind the scenes of filming inside Radio Gunjan.
Behind the scenes of filming inside Radio Gunjan.
(Photo: Munmun Dhalaria)

The documentary also highlights the work of rural development organisations like CORD, which have worked tirelessly for decades to uplift women and empower villages – work that was very handy during this pandemic. Through such stories, my hope is that this film will provide a rare look into the impact COVID-19 is having across the globe, and become an invaluable document of the times we're living through.

(COVID RESPONSE - A Himalayan story, was produced by filmmaker Munmun Dhalaria with the help of a National Geographic Emergency Journalism Fund)

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