As the world went into lockdown mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some real-life superheroes turned this period into an opportunity for selfless loving, caring, and giving, which impacted thousands of lives, says Rishi Rathod
At a time when a monumental calamity has engulfed the planet, we have seen many politicians, entrepreneurs, and celebrities come forward to generously share their wealth and help the common man. Their generosity is indeed appreciable and was duly covered by the mass media. However, there is also this bunch of common men and women who, by their sheer determination, grit, and hard work, helped countless lives caught in the crossfire of the pandemic, hunger, loneliness, and poverty.
Some got noticed, but many went unrecognised, as they did not care about being in the limelight. For them, true joy and fulfilment come from being of service to others rather than from being in the spotlight. There are hundreds of such real-life heroes walking unsung among us. We connected with a few of them and share their stories here with you.
The medicine man
Like local trains are to Mumbaikars, so is medicine for the ailing. Shyam Gupta, who runs a business of manufacturing biodegradable plates in Delhi, understood this from the beginning of the lockdown. He believes in selfless service as an essential element of a good life. When the government announced a complete shutdown in March 2020, he was involved with helping disabled and autistic people. During this time, many government hospitals which were giving free medicines to the poor stopped doing it completely. Realising how critical this was for the lives of so many people, he decided to provide medicines to the needy. He extended his support to the NGO, Action India by taking medical requests from them and fulfilling them directly with the ailing. The initial medicine supply was under Project Delhi, an initiative of Action for Autism.
Action India works at the grassroots level for women upliftment and has a team of volunteers who are well connected with the slums of north Delhi and other places. As soon as he got ready, his phone number reached all the right people who wanted medicines desperately. During March, April, June, July, and August, his name became so popular that many volunteers and groups started calling him ‘The Medicine Man.’
When asked how many people he had helped get medicines, he says, “I don’t keep a database, but around 700.” Besides, he gave medicines to many old age homes too from where he would simply get a list of medicines not knowing for whom they were meant. Interestingly, he paid for the medicines from his personal account, not taking a penny from anyone, although the Action for Autism group was ready to reimburse the expenses. When asked how he managed to do this, he says, “By God’s grace, I am doing okay in my business. I decided to cut down on my personal and family expenses, which helped me save 50 to 60 thousand rupees every month. I used this money to help those in need. Till now, I have not refused anyone’s request for medicine, and I have paid for them from my own pocket, although many friends wanted to donate for this cause.”
So how was he accomplishing this task? He says that he would get a call from a patient or patient’s relative, after which he would ask them to send an image of the prescription. He would then ask the person to go to a medical store, order the medicine, and send him the image of the bill, after which he would transfer the funds online to the shopkeeper. He took the help of Health Skool Pharmacy too to supply and distribute medicines. Many times, medicines were distributed through volunteers as well. To know whether the medicines had reached the right person, he would sometimes call and check. Some of them were so poor that, on the phone, they would say that they have medicine but no food. He would then give them rations as well.
He never deviated from providing medicines, as he knew many people were already giving grocery and cooked meals. He himself gave groceries to many families till June and still continues to provide for 20-25 families every month. However, his main focus is medicine. He also partnered with Eternal Energy Foundation that feeds fodder to abandoned cows every day. There are around 300 cows that are fed, and Shyam sponsors the fodder for two days every month along with providing other forms of help.
“I don’t think I am doing anything great for the people. In fact, it is our ego which makes us think that we are doing something for someone. Serving gives me joy and a chance to grow internally. I am grateful to God and nature for making me capable of doing it,”says Shyam Gupta.
Sangeeta’s selfless service
While Shyam was actively engaged in helping people with medicines in Delhi NCR, Sangeeta Isvaran was cruising full force with other volunteers to deal with the situation in Tamil Nadu. She says, “I met an old man at the central station who had nothing with him except a body covered in bruises. His employer had beaten him, taken his ID cards, phone, and money to prevent him from leaving the factory. He had somehow made his way to the station. As he stood bewildered amid a crowd of thousands clamouring to get home, our eyes met. When I moved towards him and asked where he wanted to go, he broke down and wept. As the tears rolled down, he showed me the bruises on his body. Looking into his grief-stricken eyes, I just listened, till he got on a bus. I gave him some money, introduced him to other people going to his state, and said in Hindi, ‘Uncle, you are not alone; my heart weeps for you. My heart is filled with love for you. Please call me.’ I cannot tell you the number of times I have said these words after the lockdown was announced.”
Sangeeta, a Bharatanatyam dancer, has been involved in community development work in the field of education, empowerment, and conflict resolution, for over 25 years, using arts as a medium. A week into the lockdown, she was returning from food distribution work in her car, when, on the highway, she saw a sea of people, all migrant workers, with small cloth bags and other belongings, walking to their homes states of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, and MP, some 2000 to 3000 km away. Most of them didn’t have money to travel, food to eat, and water to drink. To make matters worse, most of them were walking barefoot in the severe heat of May along with children.
Sangeeta could not bear to see their plight and decided to do something about it. She immediately sent her 80-year-old father to her sister’s place in Bangalore and got down to helping people. She first started relief work in the villages of Ranipet and Tiruvannamalai districts in Tamil Nadu, where tribal communities, daily wage earners, and traditional artists lived and who were severely impacted. She then began raising funds for her NGO, Katradi, to help facilitators distribute ration kits and food to hundreds of families.
Sangeeta joined hands with Ravin Carr, the head of the NGO, Feed Chennai, to co-create a volunteer group called ‘Chennai Migrant Taskforce (CMT)’, and for the coming months, she and a handful of volunteers spent hours at Chennai Central Station and different highways, guiding and helping stranded migrants get food, reach shelters, and get onto trains. They translated for the police from Tamil to Hindi and prevented potential conflicts when crowds of hundreds would gather at the Central Station to get into overcrowded trains. On hearing stories of starving workers inside trains, the CMT started distributing food kits consisting of bread, jam, chapattis or theplas, and water to the passengers. It was a back-breaking task, but Sangeeta and her team tried maintaining coherence, to some extent, amid chaos.
When you decide to support and help a cause, you do it to your full capacity. Sangeeta swiftly moved in to support the efforts of the police, railways, and shelter home authorities by sharing lists of stranded workers with them, collected through phone helplines and from highways, stations, and shelter homes. She coordinated with multiple volunteer groups and NGOs across India and submitted extensive details to the police and GCC (Greater Chennai Corporation) to help Shramik trains run at full capacity during May, June, and mid-July 2020.
She also rescued bonded labourers with the help of teams of volunteers across India. Her house was open to women who were victims of abuse and sexual violence during the lockdown and in need of a safe place, helping them reach counsellors and doctors where necessary. Her home continues to operate as a haven for women in need.
In and around Chennai, she and other volunteers from the CMT have distributed 30,400 food kits in Shramik trains; 1,02,580 meals to the homeless and stranded; 4,200 grocery kits; 77,000 litres of drinking water; and 4,000 sanitisers to government COVID volunteers. Besides, they helped 5,071 stranded workers get onto trains and 2,360 workers reach shelters. This is apart from the villages and tribal areas she is personally working in with another group of volunteers.
“What I do is nothing special and is just a drop in the ocean. But this thought keeps arising: ‘The need of the hour is action.’ But where does that action arise from? If that action arises out of anger (against the system or the situation today) or frustration, then the entire momentum of that action is coloured by that emotional frequency. I am trying hard to centre myself and act from a space of love, so that my action spreads that colour. It may not change the outcome; it will not solve this enormous pandemic emergency, but this is all I am capable of,” says Sangeeta.
Rajiv saves jobs
The lockdown brought the disaster of unemployment in its wake. The world over, millions lost their jobs and livelihoods, especially those from the lower and middle-income groups.
Rajiv Joshi, with 24 years of experience in digital retail business and e-commerce development and marketing, says, “Within a month of the lockdown, I realised that we were in the midst of unprecedented trying times and the magnitude of job cuts and lay-offs would be unimaginable. While everyone was talking about migrant labourers, there was hardly any voice for retrenched white-collared and blue-collared employees. I thought the conventional way of job-hunting may not be enough as there was no two-way interaction happening on most platforms and physical meetings were out of the question due to COVID. So, I created a WhatsApp group called ‘Lockdown Jobs’ on April 25, 2020.”
What he did was pretty simple. From his known groups, he added HR and other colleagues. The idea was to increase word-of-mouth and reference recruitments through an open, yet focused, and swift interactive medium. The response was encouraging. Rajiv says, “To my surprise, the word spread, and people seemed to like the idea. We crossed the group size limit of 256 people on WhatsApp in a month and a half and then migrated to Telegram group on June 18, 2020. The number of job posts has increased from 5-6 a day, three months ago, to 50-60 a day now.” Now, jobs are being posted from across the country in multiple disciplines and roles, and they have crossed the 700 mark as members in a group.
The process is simple. Recruiters can post jobs, and job seekers can post what they are looking for by sharing a brief profile such as name, age, location, work experience, current CTC, etc., or a profile link (LinkedIn or Google Drive.) instead of sharing a CV.
Rajiv puts it humbly: “It’s gratifying to see how a simple thought has turned into a movement. Recruiters and job seekers are free to use this platform. While I don’t keep a tab or ask about how many have got jobs through the platform, my estimate is that five–six per cent have benefitted from this endeavour. I get to know when people post happy smileys after getting jobs.”
According to Rajiv, “It’s the people who have helped the group to grow, and I would not like to take any credit for this initiative. May more people join this initiative and find opportunities for betterment.”
Rahul’s sanitisation drive
One of the most important campaigns an individual could undertake during the pandemic, risking his own life, was maintaining cleanliness by sanitising places. When the sudden outbreak of the pandemic happened, instead of getting panicky and fearful, people like Rahul Bhandarkar, with his volunteer team, took charge of the situation and began sanitising susceptible public places. They cleaned and sanitised public toilets, police stations, banks, bus stops, worship areas, schools, hospitals, and old age homes. At those high-risk public places (especially some hospitals and public toilets) where officials were unwilling to go, these corona warriors led the battle. They sanitised almost 3000 places, free of cost merely on a telephonic request.
Rahul, who was working with Future Group as an Operations Manager realised that the demand for support needed in the region was extensive and there were other things required to do as well. He—with the help of V R Foundation and many willing donors and supporting NGOs, especially Live to Give and Rise Infinity—started a ‘WeTooCare’ campaign. Immediately, a community kitchen was started, through which 100 people were fed everyday, and the figures reached 2000 people everyday in no time. They started distributing sanitary and hygiene kits to women in the tribal areas of Vasai, Nalasopara, and Virar.
Helping people in these COVID times did not come easy. The volunteers were never allowed in some tribal areas and villages to give help to some senior citizens. He and his team had to submit fitness certificates and other types of proof before they were let in. They wanted to support the health and hygiene of women who were at a higher risk, but the old mindset and customs came in-between. Nevertheless, they were determined, and finally, Team Rahul managed to help more than 1000 families with sanitary kits for menstrual healthcare.
When asked how he managed to reach far and wide, from Vasai to Virar and the surrounding tribal areas, he says, “When I started, we were only a handful of people. But when others saw us working and helping, they wanted to join us. I received calls from many areas, and many volunteers joined us. Infact, some professors from nearby colleges were ready to make calls on our behalf or do any administration-related work. When your intentions are good and your efforts are pure, people join hands and make things happen.”
Rahul told me about the blind and handicapped people colony near Nalasopara. This colony was set up by the government for the disabled, and all the 2000 people of the colony sell stationery items every day at the railway station to earn their living. He says, “Their suffering was one of the worst kind, but after giving them food for a couple of days, they said, ‘Don’t give us food every day; instead, give us rations, and we will manage somehow. We are taking food for free; please see if we can do some kind of work.’ I was speechless.”
The trail of good deeds doesn’t end here. The team also organised food distribution and medical check-ups, and distributed home quarantine kits. “When you are out to help, you know, you don’t say no to anything,” Rahul adds.
Jogesh’s online endeavour
In yet another act of selfless giving, we discover the power of the Internet to bring a difference to the lives of those in need of help.
Jogesh Jain, the founder of JJ School of Employability, India’s biggest online job skills training platform, teamed up with keynote speaker, Brigadier Sushil Bhasin to help 46 new writers from their online tribe co-create three books during the lockdown. Two of these books, Being Employable and Seven Mantras of Organic Success, have already been published worldwide. The third book, Rise and Shine, is about to be published. The 46 writers have decided unanimously that all the revenues from the worldwide sale of print copies as well as Kindle versions of the books would go to the Shri Rajendra Honeycomb Charitable Trust, which runs an orphanage and a home for senior citizens in Bhayander, a suburb of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.
Jogesh explains the generosity of his tribe: “It gave us a big high to brainstorm, write, edit, and publish our combined literary effort. As new writers, the thrill of seeing our names in print was overwhelming. We had earlier decided to create a joint account, but Brigadier Sushil Bhasin suggested that we donate to a worthy cause. This is when someone suggested that we contribute to Shri Rajendra Honeycomb Charitable Trust during this difficult time. We are happy that every sale on Amazon and Kindle contributes a trickle of money directly to the account of the trust. I believe that we are all part of an eco-system that includes all beings and therefore, even as we seek to grow as individuals, we should also contribute to the upliftment of the world.”
Devendra Singh, the founder of Shri Rajendra Honeycomb Charitable Trust is understandably elated. He says, “I am thankful to Jogesh Jain and Brigadier Bhasin’s gesture and all the contributing writers of these three books. I express gratitude for this initiative on behalf of all the 58 members of our family. While I welcome donations, I have never actively sought them. Big shares of my expenses are met by textbooks that I write for school students. Thanks to these wonderful people, I am now deepening my understanding of how I can use the tools of online commerce to serve my children and the elders. The lockdown has turned into a time of tremendous learning for me. This is huge for me!”
Nara Subramaniam, the founder and owner of Resolve Asia, a training and coaching consultancy based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is one of the contributing writers of the book Seven Mantras of Organic Success. He says that he supported the gesture by all the writers because of the lessons he had learned from his mother early in life. “My chapter was on the subject of how my parents imparted the basic values that have guided my life, relationships, and career. These values continued to guide my ongoing business practice and way of life. My mother was always a source of solace, love, and affection to all who came into her life. To me, she personified the value of unconditional giving. Being a son of such generous and giving parents, how could I pass up such an opportunity to serve. I am indebted to all who have helped me cross this important milestone in my life. Thanks to them, I am now a published author,” he says.
Shishir and Rimple: Heroes of humanity
In times of tragedy, few feel for the suffering millions and operate on ground zero to mitigate their pain. And fewer are the ones who think in terms of creating a platform through which people can give their time, money, and energy. Shishir Joshi, the founder of Project Mumbai, and Rimple Dedhia, belong to this category.
The commitment, sincerity, and determination of Shishir and Rimple to help people with their army of 2000 volunteers is commendable. Their spirit to selflessly support human beings has made his NGO, Project Mumbai, the go-to institution for citizens, like-minded social institutions, philanthropists, corporates, and local and state governments.
They did everything one expects COVID warriors to do–from providing food grains, grocery kits, meals, and medicines to migrants and poor, housebound senior citizens to providing two lakh PPE kits to doctors with the help of corporates, including 10,000 to the Mumbai Police. They also provided bananas to 1000-4000 migrant and homeless children everyday (till the figures reached 2.5 lakh children across Mumbai) and breakfast, lunch, and dinner to over 1500 doctors from J J, Cama, Cooper, Sion, Navi Mumbai, and KEM hospitals as well as the staff of the COVID control room at Mantralaya, the headquarters of the Maharashtra Government, every day.
But what makes Shishir and Rimple, and their team admirable is their ability to think on their feet. “Initially, there was complete confusion. Most people were not sure what was taking place. The gravity had not impacted people but it was growing. Project Mumbai has always had its ears to the ground, and we felt we needed to reach out to people urgently,” says Mr. Joshi. He adds, “I told our champion volunteers, who are our life and soul, to try and sense the need and pain of the people. All the initiatives we undertook were the result of sensing and acting fast upon the pain of the people.”
He soon realised the importance of having a helpline system where needy people could call and ask for medicines, groceries, or food, especially those with physical disabilities. Rimple took charge without realising the enormity of the task. The response was immediate. They partnered with DMart and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which sent the helpline number to millions across the city.
Soon Rimple’s phone became a call centre, with at least around 200 calls being received in a day and an equivalent number of messages. This continued for months till the lockdown was eased off. She says, “In April, the helpline was also extended to the disabled who were living alone. We would generally help deliver things within a day, unlike some other online grocery platforms which would even cancel orders or half-deliver after making people wait for four-five days.”
Soon Rimple started getting all kinds of calls, including distress calls—not only from Mumbai or India but also from people from the USA, Singapore, Canada, UK, UAE, and Bahrain, who wanted to find out about their parents who were living alone. Many were not prepared for the lockdown, and dealing with its trauma was hard. They would cry out of panic and stress. Rimple did a superb job of just listening to them and slowly helping them calm down. It was a tough job, but, nonetheless, very gratifying.
Taking a cue from phone helplines and how the situation was turning out, Project Mumbai launched a toll-free mental health service with the support of the state government and two separate mental health helplines. As soon as these helplines came into play, they were flooded with calls. They get 350 calls, on an average, every day. There are 35 trained counsellors attending to this helpline. In two months, they have attended to over 4000 calls from 24 states in India.
Rimple says, “Calls were coming in asking for help with the availability of hospital beds too. So we created a dashboard for the non-COVID hospitals of Mumbai, giving out real-time information about facilities available, contact info, and the number of beds available, etc. Overall, I was managing the dashboard.”
The Joshi-led Project Mumbai has been awarded by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Solidarity Action Awards in July 2020 for impactful humanitarian work done for COVID relief. Only 50 have been recognised globally, Project Mumbai being one of them.
The givers never care about what they get in return. All of them say that the happiness and satisfaction they get by helping others are their own rewards. They are continuing with what they have started, and their attitude is that of gratitude towards the Divine for making them capable enough to serve others.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
Achieving and getting as much as we can is considered to be the hallmark of success and happiness in our society. However, true happiness is tasted by those who dedicate themselves to helping and serving others. For, in uplifting others, we uplift ourselves.
These COVID heroes have lit the lamp of hope, positivity, faith, and optimism in people and led the way for humanity to walk on. Life Positive salutes these champions and hopes that their actions will inspire many to walk the path of selfless service.
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