Roshini Suparna Diwakar

The Toll Untold

“Sometimes you go through things that seem huge at the time, like a mysterious glowing cloud devouring your entire community. While they’re happening, they feel like the only thing that matters and you can hardly imagine that there’s a world out there that might have anything else going on. And then the glow cloud moves on. And you move on.”

-Welcome to Night Vale

Seems unlikely. I have been thinking about, once again, Dickens’ opening line from ‘The Tale of Two Cities’. It seems like those words, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, apply to any given epoch. Which one of us has not heard this from the older generations? The famous, ‘In our times…..’; and, how many of us have not started saying it already to those younger than us? But, these do seem like unprecedented times, at least among the living generations.

In a matter of days, we have been moved to re-evaluate our very way of being. Over 3.5 million infected, but 7.5 billion affected. The world economy has crashed and millions have been left with no source of livelihood and little relief, in the flash of a second. Even as ‘the Earth heals’, humanity tries to find itself again. Governments and peoples are being tested, and both have had a range of successes and failures. Some shower petals on front-line workers while others have succeeded in containing the virus before it got out of hand. Some have extended the lockdown, ensured social distancing measures are maintained and have alleviated the pressure on their healthcare systems while others believe that they “did everything right but now it’s time to go back to work”. ‘…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’.

As we became confined to our homes, we, the privileged, were released from the shackles of our faith in the existing way of being. Or, so one hopes! Reflection is difficult in noise, and as life slowed down for those of us who did not have to worry about everyday essentials, many took up things they had put off. We began to cook together, learnt new languages and skills, read, wrote, exercised and reflected. Reflected on what is working and what isn’t. Whether one must live ‘the fast life’ or is there room for ‘slow-living’? What do we really need for us to live fulfilling lives, and how much of that is material? Can we, in this supposed ‘new normal’ continue to live this way, where we want for less but feel and connect with each other and our selves more? And how, then, do we create and establish these new systems, these new ways of being, so that we don’t just revert to our old ways? What of the old should stay, and what of the new must we institutionalise? And, how do we get the old guards to shift to these models, to see value in them, to invest in them and to enable them. ‘…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity’.

With these changing times, work evolved too. Public meetings were cancelled and community engagement stopped. Writing, an old friend (and foe), returned reluctantly, and stories from the ground, of those most affected by this storm, emerged. While we settled into this new way of living, only marginally inconvenienced by it, windows into the lives of the most vulnerable opened up, presenting the stark reality that Dickens often wrote about.

When the crisis started and the immediate consequences of the lockdown became known to us, many coalesced to raise money for the vulnerable. Organisations working on the ground, those that had a presence in these communities before we were hit by this pandemic, became vital like never before. They evolved their way of engagement, adapted to these shifts, and ran into the fire. They delivered essentials, educated communities and provided opportunities to earn an income. They emerged as the barrier between existing poverty and abject destitution.

LJJ Rinju
Rinju, a co-founder of Lakshya Jeevan Jagriti, pictured during a food drive wearing protective gear made out of plastic folders.

Every day, the full truth of this pandemic was made more conspicuous. Refugee families with no income were left without enough food to get them through the week. Children’s education was stalled because they could not afford internet access for online classes. Migrants walked home only to die on the way or be quarantined when they reached because they were potential carriers. But, through this all, stories of hope emerged too. Residents of the refugee camp collected money to buy rations for the most poor among them. Women in informal settlements stitched masks and distributed them for free to ensure everyone’s safety. Community leaders volunteered to distribute rations to families who did not have the right documentation. And women began to cook and pack food to give the homeless. “…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness”.

Very early on, we knew this was a marathon, not a sprint. But, when there is a sense of urgency to help those most vulnerable, there is no choice but to deep dive. As the weeks passed and these stories came into the limelight for all of us to see, a critical one remained untold; the emotional toll that this work takes on those working on the ground. Collecting, writing and sharing these stories, only hearing and hearing only about how bad the situation is, began to weigh heavy. True leaders who stepped onto this new battlefield at dawn and stayed there, living in their offices, working around the clock, never disengaging because they could not afford to, became weary. Masked with makeshift armoury, they could not protect their mental health. They wept; for those they helped, for those they couldn’t, and for themselves. And then, they got back out there, because what else could they do?

“…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 

~Article by Roshini Suparna Diwakar

 

If you would like to donate, please consider the organisations mentioned below. I work with them directly and know that they are truly committed to serving those most in need.

Lakshya Jeevan Jagriti: https://www.meralakshya.org/donate/

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust: https://www.mahilahousingtrust.org/our-work/covid-19/

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