Beyond Covid-19, India must invest in public health infrastructure

Rural areas and small towns are particularly vulnerable.

WrittenBy:Jessica Mayberry
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For perhaps the first time, almost the entire world is telling one single story, together: their Covid-19 story. When the news touches our daily lives, our personal story becomes a national one.

I’m inspired by what I see on my newsfeed: people making sense of a world event by reflecting on how it is changing them and their families. I am the director of an NGO called Video Volunteers, which has spent nearly 15 years helping the communities we work with in India do just that. And so, I feel a tremendous sense of hope, that we’re no longer in our silos, telling a million disparate stories.

What follows, then, is the Covid-19 story of my organisation as India finishes its fifth week of lockdown. Civil society organisations are critical to finding the brightest path out of the coronavirus crisis, and stories of grassroots adaptation and response are particularly needed now.

Across India right now, thousands of citizens are engaged in direct relief work, providing people with cash and food. From my neighbours in the village in Goa where I live, to the Video Volunteers correspondents in far-flung districts, untold numbers of citizens have become first-time activists, or better activists.

Our community correspondents — people like Shabnam, who profiled a starving seven-year-old old girl living under a tent, and Aamir, Laxmi, Bikash, Faisal, Jahanara and Zainab, who are distributing rations to thousands of people — are finding that their training has made them the ideal responders for this crisis.

Video Volunteers provides cash support to correspondents in Lucknow, Bhind, Gwalior, Patna, Cooch Behar, and Kishanganj to purchase rations for needy families. We provide direct support to 24 correspondents, with more on the way. We surveyed our network about their food security, asking them if any of them were having trouble accessing or purchasing food for two square meals a day.

Shockingly, 40 percent of our correspondents did not have the money to buy enough food. Despite their own suffering, many are doing relief work.

The reason millions are hungry in India is because the government announced the lockdown with almost no planning around protecting the poor. With no work and all public transportation stopped, millions simply started walking along the highways to home, as reported by Shambu in Rajasthan and by Roshan in Jammu.

I knew the situation was dire when, on Day 3 of the lockdown, Yasin from West Bengal, a man who has helped us build our garden, showed up at our doorstep saying he and 145 other daily-wage earners had no food. The mother of my children’s close friends, who works as a household help, has also needed our help in feeding her family. The Rs 700 a day they earn as labourers pays for that day’s food.

So, no work means no food.

A platform for citizen action that Video Volunteers has helped to set up in Goa, called, is helping to coordinate food for migrants. We’re also connecting the various citizen efforts and circulating fact-based information.

I am also feeling the pain of the under-resourced media in a time like this, something I know rural communities feel every day. Some newspapers tell us only what the government promises — more hospital beds, financial relief for migrants, new schemes — but not what the government is actually delivering. There’s sometimes a massive gap in ground reports in India.

Covid-19 has made this worse, with journalists unable to travel freely. Like everyone else, our reporters are under lockdown, at the time they are needed most. Our new show tries to fill that gap.

What does the future hold for India?

Hearing their many inspiring stories of citizen action makes me feel less alone; but hearing from them about the impending disaster, makes me very, very worried.

Though India’s number of cases is currently very low, one thing is for sure: when the pandemic hits the overcrowded slums and villages — all with barely-there medical facilities — it will be disastrous. This is a situation that the government absolutely cannot handle alone. The only hope at the community level is a coordinated effort by the government, civil society organisations, and engaged citizens.

Citizens need to know and do three things:

1. They need to be aware and motivated. That’s why our “work from home” project for our correspondents is to build local WhatsApp groups that will share verified information and help the village prepare for the crisis.

2. They need to know the ground realities: That’s why we’ve drafted a village-level preparedness survey that will help the villages where we work ascertain which public infrastructure and services most urgently must be fixed.

3. Finally, they need to monitor the local government programmes that will be crucial for people’s survival in the coming year, and then demand improvements. This, thankfully, is what correspondents have always done so well.

The time is now, not tomorrow, for India to improve public health and governance in rural areas and small towns. Our correspondents, as well as numerous NGOs and civil society organisations, are ready to unleash their talents on a crisis they are uniquely suited to tackling.


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