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‘Lifeline’ Tech Helps Poor Rural Women Get Through India’s COVID-19 Crisis

India’s COVID-19 crisis has exposed a wide digital divide, prompting many grassroots groups to focus on connecting poorer women without internet access to healthcare and financial support, or simply to help them keep in contact with loved ones

'Lifeline' Tech Helps Poor Rural Women Get Through India's COVID-19 Crisis
Highlights
  • Many turned to social media to track down hospital beds during 2nd wave
  • Digital divide is far greater for poor rural women: Expert
  • Non-profit organisations are helping the poor in the country

Mumbai/Chennai: Anajana Lalaji Bise’s precious last photograph of her husband is a picture he sent to her on WhatsApp a few days before he died from COVID-19 in a hospital in western India. Ms Bise had to quarantine at home after her husband, a farmer, was hospitalised last month, but she was able to stay in touch with him using a smartphone given to her by a local nonprofit to help her small snack business operate during the pandemic.

Also Read: COVID Warriors: ‘Doctors On Wheels’ Address COVID-19 Healthcare Needs In Rural India

India’s COVID-19 crisis has exposed a wide digital divide, prompting many grassroots groups to focus on connecting poorer women without internet access to healthcare and financial support, or simply to help them keep in contact with loved ones.

“I didn’t know about WhatsApp or video calling before,” Bise told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her home in Nimbhore village in Maharashtra, one of the states worst-affected by India’s second coronavirus wave.

“If not for this mobile, I wouldn’t have been able to see my husband,” the 42-year-old mother-of-two said, her voice cracking with grief and still weak from the effects of the disease.

COVID-19 has killed nearly 390,000 people in India and infected almost 30 million, according to official data, but experts think the real numbers are likely much higher.

The deadly second wave, which peaked in April and May, left the health service on its knees.

In desperation, many turned to social media to track down hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medication, while others used coding skills to grab rare vaccine slots on registration websites.

India has one of the world’s widest digital gender gaps, with only a third of women owning a mobile compared to two thirds of men, according to a 2018 Harvard University study.

But the divide is far greater for poor rural women, who are also much less likely to have digital literacy skills, according to Chetna Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi, an organisation which works to empower rural women.

Also Read: From Creating Role Models To Vaccinating At Home, Here’s How J&K’s Bandipora District Has Rolled Out COVID Vaccination

Grassroots campaigners say smartphones can be instrumental in helping women – giving them greater autonomy and access to services and information.

Mann Deshi, which has given phones to rural women in western Maharashtra’s Satara district, said the devices have helped them survive financially during the pandemic.

After receiving her phone, Jyoti Devkar, 25, quickly learnt how to create a Facebook page for her computer parts shop in Banpuri village, post photos of her products and accept online payments.

When she was hospitalised with COVID-19 some 15 km (nine miles) from her home, Devkar was able to keep her business going while recovering.

“I stayed in touch with my family back home on video calls,” she said.

But staying in a ward full of patients was distressing so I continued working. It kept me sane.

While most men isolating with the virus can easily keep in touch with family, Sinha said the lack of a phone left many quarantining women completely cut off.

We initially provided smartphones to help rural women keep their businesses going during the pandemic, but we then realised how important a phone was to help them connect with their families during lockdown and quarantine, she said.

Across the country, many social enterprises like Mann Deshi – companies, nonprofits and community groups that aim to make the world a better place – have rapidly pivoted their operations to plug gaps in the national response.

Mann Deshi, which founded a bank for rural women in 1997 and provides training in business skills, has helped build a 300-bed COVID-19 hospital and is working with others to provide oxygen, beds, ventilators and medication to the sickest.

‘Lifeline’

Other social enterprises have set up hotlines to help marginalised communities in areas where the nearest health centre may be far away.

Also Read: Hyderabad Based NGO Aashri Society Is Leaving No Stone Unturned To Help People Amid The COVID-19 Crisis 

“Sometimes women call and hang up, scared to talk about themselves,” said nurse Mansi Dwivedi, who monitors the HelloSwasti helpline run by public health nonprofit Swasti Health Catalyst.

Most don’t have their own phone and can’t find a private space in their crowded homes to talk freely. But when they call, it means they desperately need help.

Inquiries include questions about the vaccine, pandemic-related stress and job losses, lack of medicines for chronic diseases like diabetes, and domestic abuse, which has spiked during lockdowns.

Swasti arranges phone consultations with doctors, prescription deliveries and sends community workers to check on callers who may need referring for specialised care.

It also helps pregnant women who have been unable to attend check-ups due to lockdowns or who have run out of iron supplements to prevent anaemia, which affects half of pregnant women in India and is a major cause of maternal death.

Widow Kiran Bajaj, 53, who struggled to cope when she was self-isolating with the virus at home in central Madhya Pradesh state, said the practical tips and support she received from the helpline calls were a “lifeline”.

Grassroots organisations are also providing women with oxymeters to monitor oxygen levels, connecting them to diagnostic facilities, and paying for tests – a prohibitive cost for many – to ensure those infected get the right treatment.

Nonprofit SEEDS, which helps India’s poorest people, has established COVID-19 care centres for marginalised communities and a hotline to help them source everything from hospital beds to oxygen.

SEEDS co-founder Manu Gupta said women had often been brought to hospital later than men, by which time their symptoms were more serious.

Daily coronavirus cases are steadily falling, but Mr Gupta now fears the digital divide could put millions of poor, including rural women, at the back of the vaccination queue.

With India requiring people to register for their jab via a smartphone app or website, Mr Gupta urged the government to work with civil society and community organisations to reach those lacking access to technology.

SEEDS is sending teams door-to-door to encourage people to get jabs and help them register.

“We tend to leave out the most vulnerable whenever we have a large-scale response to a crisis – and then society’s inequalities become even more pronounced,” Mr Gupta said.

“We’re trying to make sure nobody gets left behind.”

Also Read: Meet ‘Oxygen Man’ Of Patna, A COVID Survivor, Who Strives To Get Oxygen Cylinders To Critical Patients In Home Care

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene

World

24,06,78,961Cases
20,23,40,977Active
3,34,39,331Recovered
48,98,653Deaths
Coronavirus has spread to 195 countries. The total confirmed cases worldwide are 24,06,78,961 and 48,98,653 have died; 20,23,40,977 are active cases and 3,34,39,331 have recovered as on October 18, 2021 at 4:17 am.

India

3,40,81,315 13,596Cases
1,89,6946,152Active
3,34,39,331 19,582Recovered
4,52,290 166Deaths
In India, there are 3,40,81,315 confirmed cases including 4,52,290 deaths. The number of active cases is 1,89,694 and 3,34,39,331 have recovered as on October 18, 2021 at 2:30 am.

State Details

State Cases Active Recovered Deaths
Maharashtra

65,91,697 1,715

32,230 994

64,19,678 2,680

1,39,789 29

Kerala

48,54,321 7,555

88,186 3,292

47,39,270 10,773

26,865 74

Karnataka

29,83,459 326

9,479 58

29,36,039 380

37,941 4

Tamil Nadu

26,87,092 1,218

14,814 208

26,36,379 1,411

35,899 15

Andhra Pradesh

20,60,472 432

6,034 159

20,40,131 586

14,307 5

Uttar Pradesh

17,10,028 9

119 10

16,87,011 19

22,898

West Bengal

15,80,530 624

7,421 24

15,54,132 634

18,977 14

Delhi

14,39,390 32

320 6

14,13,981 38

25,089

Odisha

10,35,077 443

4,542 68

10,22,250 508

8,285 3

Chhattisgarh

10,05,654 16

183 2

9,91,901 14

13,570

Rajasthan

9,54,390 2

42 2

9,45,394 4

8,954

Gujarat

8,26,290 10

207 6

8,15,997 16

10,086

Madhya Pradesh

7,92,684 5

84 12

7,82,077 17

10,523

Haryana

7,71,076 15

123 9

7,60,904 6

10,049

Bihar

7,26,026 5

48 4

7,16,317 1

9,661

Telangana

6,68,955 122

3,924 55

6,61,093 176

3,938 1

Assam

6,06,468 205

3,436 46

5,97,082 245

5,950 6

Punjab

6,02,035 27

227 8

5,85,264 16

16,544 3

Jharkhand

3,48,430 7

122 1

3,43,173 8

5,135

Uttarakhand

3,43,756 9

178 1

3,36,181 8

7,397

Jammu And Kashmir

3,31,062 95

843 12

3,25,793 107

4,426

Himachal Pradesh

2,21,437 131

1,303 5

2,16,414 125

3,720 1

Goa

1,77,522 60

604 6

1,73,572 62

3,346 4

Puducherry

1,27,396 52

585 13

1,24,961 64

1,850 1

Manipur

1,22,737 104

1,422 0

1,19,418 102

1,897 2

Mizoram

1,12,848 249

11,633 1,143

1,00,829 1,389

386 3

Tripura

84,321 16

104 4

83,401 12

816

Meghalaya

82,953 55

845 32

80,673 86

1,435 1

Chandigarh

65,302 3

25 3

64,457 6

820

Arunachal Pradesh

54,987 7

140 30

54,567 37

280

Sikkim

31,749 4

174 8

31,184 12

391

Nagaland

31,611 40

248 12

30,689 28

674

Ladakh

20,878 2

36 10

20,634 12

208

Dadra And Nagar Haveli

10,676 1

4 1

10,668

4

Lakshadweep

10,365

0 0

10,314

51

Andaman And Nicobar Islands

7,641

9 0

7,503

129

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