- Hunger was a major issue during the first Covid wave, says a young warrior
- Misinformation can cost lives and so we dispel myths around Covid: Asma
- No donation is small during a crisis like the Covid pandemic: Asma
New Delhi: The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up many heroes who rose to the occasion to help others cope with the uncertainties of the pandemic and the lockdowns. 24-year-old Asma Khan from Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal is one such warrior who not just found her purpose during these difficult times but also inspired others to hope and act. From providing food for the migrant workers and others in need to providing verified information regarding the source of vital medical items like oxygen, medicines, hospital beds, to raising awareness about Covid, preventive measures and vaccination, this young activist has been constantly working to strengthen the fight against the pandemic.
Asma has been a social activist since her school and had worked towards environmental issues and discrimination faced by people on the basis of their gender and religion. She is also a member of Aawaj, a Bhopal based and NGO and a part of YuWaah’s (a multi-stakeholder platform formed by UNICEF) #YoungWarrior movement and National Young People’s Action Team (NYPAT) that was launched in May 2021 amidst the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was her sense of service to people and empathy that got her involved in Covid response. While talking to NDTV about her journey, Asma, who has recently completed master’s in military science said that the confusion, stress and worry that the pandemic had caused, got her involved in tackling the impact of Covid and the subsequent lockdowns on people.
Images of migrants walking home for days without food and money got imprinted in my mind. The despair of thousands, including pregnant women, malnourished children and menstruating girls haunted me. There was no way that I was going to sit comfortably in my home while the lakhs of people were on road, struggling to make sense of what had happened all of a sudden, Asma said.
Mobilising The Youth Of Madhya Pradesh During Covid
The first thing that Asma, the second of four children from a middle-class family, had to do was building a Covid response team and so she took the challenging task of mobilising young people of Madhya Pradesh and motivating them to utilise their time away from college towards containing the raging pandemic. The restrictions in movement caused due to lockdown and Covid protocols made this even more challenging for her as everything was required to be done over phone calls. However, she soon found support in 50 college students including her friends and her elder sister who was working from home at that time. They brainstormed and built strategies via video calls and reached out to the senior volunteers at NGO Aawaj for guidance. A few months later, UNICEF India also lent a support and direction.
While for Asma, who was studying in a government college, it was not difficult to skip online classes, there were many students in her team who had to balance their studies as well as the Covid response work. Acknowledging the time and efforts of those students, she said,
The time when the cases were peaking, we had literally forgotten every other aspect of our lives. We have even skipped many meals during that period, especially during the second wave. We were constantly on phone. It was very strange for our parents also to us constantly talking on the phone, forgetting to eat, unable to study or sleep. Some of our parents even got worried about our mental and physical health. There were deaths and sickness in our families. But we all were determined and full of passion to be there for those in need, at any time of the day or night. I am extremely thankful to all my friends and comrades who were part of the intervention and very grateful to all the parents for understanding and allowing us to do our bit for society. One good thing was that none of us had exams during the days when there were high number of cases being reported every day.
For Asma and her group, the focus during the pandemic has been to generate and implement ideas to help people suffering the economic, medical and social impact of the pandemic.
Different Challenges Of The First And Second Wave Called For Different Response
While hunger was the biggest issue during the first wave, lack of essential medical facilities became the primary focus during the second wave, said Asma.
During the first wave, we all saw how a large number of people lose their livelihoods, many were returning to their villages, food and nutrition-related services of the government got impacted, there was a lot of chaos. So, we started by identifying some marginalised communities that needed immediate help like daily wage earners who lost work, migrant workers, homeless people, persons with disabilities, transgenders, elderlies living alone, sex workers, HIV positive families, students from other states who were studying in Madhya Pradesh among others. Our focus was to help them with food in that time of crisis. We ensured that they get at least two proper meals in a day. We were able to help over 60,000 people during the first wave.
In order to figure out logistics and resources, Asma and her group collaborated with local NGOs, Mosques, Gurdwara and Temples. They also contacted people from their families and friend circles and social media for donating dry ration to the households in need.
We also received some funds in donation from people as the word got out about our work. With that fund, for few months, we were able to take responsibility of some of the families that lost their source of income and were struggling to get a new livelihood, she said.
Apart from the problem of hunger, lack of access of basic health and sanitation facilities was another major problem that people, especially the migrant workers were facing during the first wave.
There were a lot of women and children among the migrant workers who were returning to their village after the national lockdown was announced. Many were carrying heavy luggage. Some women were even pregnant. So, along with the issue of hunger, we also noticed that there were many more problems that those people were facing while walking for days without food and money. They did not have access to basic necessities and health facilities. So, along with food, we arranged for things like slippers, ORS (Oral rehydration solutions), sanitary napkins, basic medicines, soap, water and toilets that they might need while being on a long and tedious journey.
During the second wave, even though hunger and loss of livelihood were still there, the major problem that the group focused its efforts on was the issue of lack of essential medical items and facilities like hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, medicines, that many parts of the country was facing.
People around us were dying due to the sudden dearth of medical infrastructure. It was something that I could have never imagined. I was shaken by the suffering and fear that was all around us. It was very difficult for initially to understand what and how could our Covid response team act, how to reach out to the vendors, hospitals, government officials and others. That is why we turned to online platforms and digital media and started by collating the information already floating on various platforms. Then we started verifying that information by calling the sources and contacts given. Then we started contacting the medical stores, oxygen suppliers, hospitals directly. A lot of time, people on the other side were rude and misbehaved with us because they were also getting a lot of calls every day which is frustrating. We called our initiative during the second wave as ‘Verified Virus’ and ensured that people connected with us on our WhatsApp groups and social media got correct and updated information.
She further said that they made two teams for verifying sources- one that collated all the information from social media and made phone calls to verify those and the second was the on-ground team that used to go to the particular government office or hospital or the vendor to verify the availability of the required item or facility. They used to conduct online meetings to update all the information three times a day on various WhatsApp groups and social media platforms because during that period the information became obsolete at a much faster rate. Asma, along with her group of warriors, also handled patients on a case-to-case basis.
If a patient needed oxygen and hospital bed, we used to be with the patient until they get the medical facility they needed and also followed up with them regularly. For all the emergency cases, we were using Twitter and were directly contacting the public representatives and officials of the district where the patient was at that time and also took help of social media influencers.
Raising Awareness About Covid, Preventive Measures And Vaccinations Is A Continuous Duty
While the country has been grappling with the pandemic for more than a year and a half, there are still many confusions and misconceptions among people on about coronavirus, preventive measures like wearing masks in public and vaccination, said Asma.
During this dangerous time of uncertainty, misinformation can cost lives. This is why we have continued our awareness-building programmes because even though cases are less now, the risk of Covid has not gone yet. It is still very much there and soon we will be fighting the third wave of Covid as projected by various eminent experts, she added.
The awareness campaigns being run by Asma, and her friends use mythological figures like ‘Yamraj’, ‘Chitragupta’ and cartoon characters to explain to people, including children, about Covid and preventive measures against it, in the form of stories enacted by them.
Acknowledging the work done by Asma, Dhuwarakha Sriram, Chief of Adolescent Development and Participation and Generation Unlimited at UNICEF India said that her indomitable spirit is inspiring and gives hope. She added,
What has been a true eye-opener during this pandemic is that millions of inspiring young warriors between ages 10-29, across the length, breadth and depth of India – just like Asma – have displayed exemplary qualities of innovation, determination, endurance and leadership. We are truly proud of them for stepping up to creating such a widespread impact and extend our support and heartfelt appreciation to them.
While talking about why it is important to support the youth and provide them with a platform, Prashant Dubey, Director Aawaj said that the youngsters are full of energy and ideas and with just a little of guidance and support, they can make a lot of impact. He also appreciated the parents of Asma and other young people working with her for letting their children take the risk in order to help the country fight a raging pandemic.
We, as a country, will get through this crisis. And when we do, I am sure that we will be stronger with better health infrastructure and better strategies to handle future pandemics, said Asma while signing off.
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 (Water, Sanitation 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 pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.