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COVID Hit Their Neighbors Hard. So They Sprang Into Action

Dibyendu Tarafder is a dancer based in Kolkata. The pandemic put a halt to his performances in the ancient Kathakali dance-theater style. But now he's doing a new kind of fancy footwork — juggling phone calls to help COVID patients.

As India's deadly COVID crisis unfolded in early May, Dibyendu Tarafder and a team of volunteers were fielding over 800 calls a day from people desperately seeking oxygen, hospital beds and COVID tests. Tarafder says he would answer his phone and try to help, even at 3 a.m.

Tarafder, 28, says the outbreak in his country inspired him to channel his time, money and talents to solve urgent COVID problems in his community. Other regular folks in India are pitching in as well. And public health experts say they are making a real impact.

Here are the stories of how Tarafder and others are making a difference.

The ultimate spreadsheet

Dibyendu Tarafder created this post to alert his community that he was available to help COVID patients find resources such as hospital beds, COVID tests and more. His post was widely shared across social media.
/ Dibyendu Tarafder
/
Dibyendu Tarafder created this post to alert his community that he was available to help COVID patients find resources such as hospital beds, COVID tests and more. His post was widely shared across social media.

Tarafder, based in Kolkata, noticed something on social media during India's current crisis. People were posting pleas for help ("need oxygen ASAP for my mother") — and also offering help ("Apollo Hospital has three open beds").

He thought it would be helpful to organize that information he seeing on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. He messaged or called each offer, made sure that those items and offers were still available at fair prices, and entered the information in his online database.

Then he posted his phone number on social media — and encouraged families to call him, 24/7, for help finding what they were looking for. If they needed say, a COVID test, he would check his database – then he'd connect the two parties.

Soon, he flooded with requests via phone call, text message and direct message. Unable to manage alone, he reached out to his personal network to recruit volunteers to help. The response was overwhelming, he says.

In just a few days, Tarafder says he gathered 70 volunteers. They monitor social media to identify offers to help, verify them, input that data into a master spreadsheet and answer phone calls from people seeking assistance.

The group now has up-to-date information on the availability of a variety of supplies and services, including oxygen cylinders, open hospital beds, ambulances, telemedicine appointments, home nursing care and COVID-19 testing.

"Our volunteers are up all night answering calls, many from people outside India seeking help for their elderly parents living alone," says volunteer Anuja Sen Gupta. They all work without pay.

Dr. Bibek Bhakta, a junior resident at R. G. Kar Medical College and Hospital, is familiar with Tarafder and his group's work. "Dibyendu and his team are helping the medical system in addition to the patients. The timely and accurate information provided through their helpline is helping to cut down on long lines of patients and families in search of hospital beds, oxygen and other critical resources [at hospitals]," he says.

'Do Something Good'

Sonia Mehta, a volunteer with the group Kuchh Achha KaroNa, uses WhatsApp to check in on Eva Pinky Rai as she recovers from COVID.
/ Pinky Rai
/
Sonia Mehta, a volunteer with the group Kuchh Achha KaroNa, uses WhatsApp to check in on Eva Pinky Rai as she recovers from COVID.

When Eva Pinky Rai, 30, fell seriously ill with COVID-19 in April, she was terrified. She was living and working alone in Delhi, about 1,300 miles away from her family in the northeastern state of Assam. A friend told her about a new volunteer group called Kuchh Achha KaroNa – "Do Something Good" in Hindi – and Rai got in touch.

The group connected her to volunteer Sonia Mehta, who helped Rai through her recovery. Over the phone, Mehta coordinated Rai's home medical care and texted her to remind her to take her medicines. She cooked meals for Rai to ensure she was eating well and had someone in the neighborhood drop off the food outside her house. Mehta also provided encouraging words over the phone.

"I owe my life to Sonia," says Rai, who is now fully recovered. "I am alive today because of her."

Throughout India's second wave, volunteers with Kuchh Achha KaroNa have been providing virtual emotional care to those affected by COVID in Delhi – checking in on COVID patients recovering at home via text message, as in the case with Mehta and Rai – but also providing mental health support.

The group was founded by Natasha Kukreja, a life coach, and two friends. She was inspired to start the group around the end of April after she saw people "falling ill ... and [making] desperate calls for help because they were anxious, depressed and afraid."

Kuchh Achha KaroNa offers a range of support services for isolated COVID-19 patients and families: access to 25 professional volunteer counselors who conduct group therapy sessions; four on-call volunteer doctors who offer advice on COVID-19 care and treatment to patients and families via telemedicine consultations; and daily virtual meditation and chanting sessions.

Dr. Shilpa Gupta, a medical doctor and founder of EmoAid, a group that provides mental health support to COVID-19 patients, has been observing the group's work. "I believe that a holistic approach of providing timely support and addressing emotional needs is an important stepping stone in one's recovery from COVID-19. Kuchh Achha KaroNa is doing just that."

Fish Curry At Your Doorstep

In Kolkata, Srabasti Ghosh, 26, and her mother are in their kitchen, cooking large pots of rice, dal and vegetable and fish curries. They will soon pack them into individual delivery containers for COVID-19 patients.

By day, Ghosh is a performer and researcher of Indian dance at an arts center. But in the first week of May, after seeing a surge of COVID cases in India, she could not sit idle. Many COVID-19 patients in home isolation were too ill to step out and shop for food or cook for themselves, says Ghosh. So, the first week of May, she and her mother decided to start feeding as many of them as possible.

Ghosh posted an announcement on her Facebook page, letting people know that she and her mom wanted to provide hot meals to COVID patients in the community. Soon, they heard from people: "the elderly, ill and isolated who have no way of getting food. We are doing our best to serve them," says Ghosh.

At first, Ghosh and her mom thought they could prepare and deliver about 15 meals a day. "But the very next day after we started, the requests tripled," says Ghosh. "How could we refuse?

Now, they cook for over 50 people daily. Ghosh and her mom buy the ingredients with their own funds and donations from the community. Friends help out with delivery, picking up the food from Ghosh's house and dropping it at the person's front door.

Priyadarshini Ghosh, co-founder of a nonprofit dance company that also does volunteer work during natural disasters and other crises, is familiar with Srabasti's operation. Srabasti is one of her dance students. "The COVID situation proved to be a challenge for many elderly people who tested positive and were isolated at home," says Priyadarshini. "Food was one of the main concerns as they were often too unwell to cook or shop for groceries. Srabasti, with her mother, has helped to contribute to this aspect by cooking and delivering meals to families."

People like Sreeja and her family are grateful. They were some of the people who received meals from Ghosh and her mom. "In these difficult times, Srabasti and her mother's help meant everything," says Sreeja.

"We are just beginning to recover now, so I have asked her to give our meals to another family in need," she says.


Sreyashi Dey has worked in the private sector in market research and analytics at the University of Michigan as a director of communications and is the founder of a global health nonprofit and an classical Indian dancer. She has blogged for the Times of India.

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