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Covid 19 Diaries… annals from Mumbai unseen

Apr 4 2020 / Posted in Adolescence

-  Dr. Rama Shyam,
Programme Director, Empowerment, Health & Sexuality of Adolescents (EHSAS), SNEHA, Mumbai

Names of people have been changed for confidentiality.


I cooked chicken curry today. It looked gorgeous – speckled with caramelised onions and a riot of green, red and yellow bell peppers! I followed this up with dexterously dicing out the honey dew melon and storing it in the refrigerator – a healthy dessert substitute sitting pretty in a clear glass bowl. The last 18 days have been busy, with zoom calls, Google hang out calls, day long coordination over group phone calls, household chores and irregular morning runs/walks, even as the brain remembered the vegetables and the fruits to be picked up on the way back. My nine-year-old has diligently written out grocery lists in curly cursive as part of his ‘house responsibilities’ and the partner has been patient through his ‘work from home’ routine, bouts of anxieties and helping around the small, dainty apartment where we live.

The cityscape has changed from being hazy to one that is azure, with deserted roads dappled with laburnum blossoms and cacophonous with birds, all beautiful, except for the pall of gloom and death that marks out this spring. Mumbai, along with India, as with the entire world is striving to keep the Corona virus (Covid-19) at bay through a lockdown imposed upon by the union as well as the state governments. Locked inside our homes, as we work remotely and stay connected with the news via television sets, digital media and social media channels, there is another transformation that has slowly seeped into our daily consciousness. As the director of SNEHA’s programme on Empowerment Health and Sexuality of Adolescents (EHSAS), I realise that young change agents with whom we have engaged over the past three to six years have suddenly become our eyes and ears for details from their communities – densely populated urban informal settlements where they reside.

The fact that Dharavi, Asia’s largest ‘slum’ is gripped with fear after five confirmed Covid-19 cases and one death, is something that I can feel closely, owing to what our youth facilitators have recounted. The likes of Gulnaz, Rahul, Rosy, Azhar, Rajesh and Sheela have taken up the onus of spreading the messages on maintaining hand hygiene and social distancing and have kept us on our toes with questions on, ‘how to make people understand that crowding up is dangerous?’, ‘how do we stop children from going out and playing together?’, ‘what should we do if a friend complains of cough and fever?’, ‘where do we lodge a complaint if a ration shop is selling the provisions at a higher price?’. Youth volunteers have sought assistance to focus attention on Kunchikurve Nagar, a settlement with residents who are hapless with their daily incomes coming to a standstill. They are worried that large families cramped up in tiny houses are leading to irritability and physical abuse within the homes. Our field teams, working from the confines of their homes have stayed connected with the youth in reaching out to a woman who was denied entry into a public toilet after one of her family members was taken away to a hospital for a 14 day quarantine period to rule out Covid 19 infection. They ensured that counsellors from SNEHA intervened with psychosocial support for this woman. The police was informed and they beseeched the woman’s neighbours to be empathetic towards her access to basic amenities.

In Kalwa, 19-year-old Payal, one of our most unassuming youth volunteers went about quietly, gathering details of families that have lost their daily incomes owing to the lockdown. She has been writing letters to the local corporator, seeking support for food and has been working tirelessly along with our community organisers, programme officers and coordinator to ensure that 140 families in Kalwa are taken care of through the PDS system or otherwise. Help has arrived finally, with cooked food arranged for 2000 families after coordination with multiple NGOs like YUVA, Alert India and Anulom. All the efforts have led to the Minister for Housing, Government of Maharashtra, promising to provide dry food grains to these families from 5th April onwards. Payal will sleep well tonight – she has earned it!

In Kandivali, Youth volunteers have been active on the WhatsApp group, clarifying doubts regarding the effectiveness of wearing masks, seeking details of MCGM and national helpline numbers and seeking help from the police to disperse crowds in their localities. They have routinely kept us informed about how the Public Distribution System (PDS) is functioning and about the fact that the local elected representative has been actively helping the needy with distribution of food grains. Anju, Shubho and Rakesh have patiently gone through a compilation of messages for prevention of Covid-19 and have worked on talking to 10 people every day about the same.

A sensitive crew of 100 community volunteers (out of a large network of 8,000 volunteers) has helped us create a database of more than 200 PDS shops (across Malvani, Dharavi, Wadala, Mankhurd, Kalwa, Mira Bhayandar, Thane, Bhiwandi Nizampur, Vasai Virar and Ulhasnagar) to be shared with the Government of Maharashtra strategy team to ensure that the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department of Maharashtra can monitor effective functioning of the supply chain. The commitment has been to support the public systems in strengthening response to the current lockdown.

In Jogeshwari, when 50 people from a densely populated settlement were taken away to a suburban hotel for a 14-day quarantine period after a resident tested positive for Covid-19, I got a call from a youth volunteer to find out about the arrangements the municipal corporation had made for the wellbeing of these people. It was on the same day that I was trying to assist a 19-year-old pregnant girl from Jharkhand get registered for Ante Natal Care (ANC) at the Jogeshwari maternity home. She was stuck with her daily wage earner husband as the lockdown did not allow her to take the train back to her village on time. She has been registered with the Municipal maternity home for ANC care and has gone through her routine checkup.

Amidst the multiplicity of efforts, I have continuously fallen back on the public institutions and my go to node has been 1916, the toll free helpline number set up by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and now committed to all kinds of assistance related to the Covid-19 crisis. Any person I have interacted with – on nine occasions across 18 days – at the other end of the helpline has been extremely proactive, directing me to Medical Officers at health posts, sharing phone numbers of police personnel or localized control rooms, connecting me with municipal hospitals, maternity homes and Medical Officers of Health (MOH) or with helpline numbers meant to assist stranded daily wagers from other states. Especially, on Covid-19, officials taking calls at 1916 have asked for travel history, symptoms and have accordingly guided with messages and steps to be taken.

We might emerge stronger after the crisis passes and our ways of being might change, and yet I would remember how easily I could access the public health system and the municipal helpline for issues that ranged from reporting Covid-19 symptoms to seeking assistance for maternity referral or for shelters for stranded migrants. I would also remember how the crisis and the lockdown transformed our fun loving young participants into sensitive and proactive citizens – assets for their communities and for this world!