The imposition of Lockdown-1 in March 2020, with only four hours to spare, caught everybody by surprise. This included the team of Aatapi. Within a few days of being in limbo, the team came to realise the far reaching medical, economic and social impacts of the pandemic as well as the lockdown it imposed. With eyes and ears close to the ground, the murmurs and pleas of help from most marginalised sections started coming in to us, within 2-3 days. It was then, the team geared up to take up relief work, especially targeting the most marginalized who did not fit into or required more support than that provided by the Govt. action. It so happened, that Aatapi’s humble relief supply reached the most marginalized, much before anything or anyone else, giving the team a satisfaction of not duplicating any efforts in this time of grave need.
The most marginalized we targeted included – single women, elderly, persons with disability, those with no or lapsed PDS documentation, migrant workers, pregnant women and malnourished children. Since these were the constituencies already being covered by Aatapi’s programs, identification and targeting them was found to be feasible, looking into the limited resources we had.
Lists were made in consultation with local community-based organisations mentored since past 10 years – Ujaas Credit and Cooperative Society, Vivekanand Khedut Sangathan – The Farmer Producer organization, and the members of Viklang Parivartan Sangathan – a Block level Federation of Persons with Disability. Working for sustainable development with community ownership since last 10 years, Aatapi’s efforts were validated by prompt responsiveness and active participation in relief work by all the CBOs.
As Chandrika Makwana, Director programs, a native of Jambusar and Team Leader of relief operations says “when everything started, we didn’t know much about coronavirus, there was not much clarity. We didn’t take it seriously, initially. As we learnt more, there was a lot of fear…what is going to happen? We, with all social media at our disposal, came to know a lot…but no one was present at the community level…and the lockdown came as a big development…with all restrictions on movement. The situation in villages was deteriorating”
This was the simple part, lists made with coordination on phone. Next came the more daunting task of actually physically delivering the relief supplies to spread out villages, where no supply/relief had as yet reached. The work involved purchases, making of relief kits and distribution, all within a strict lockdown been enforced.
To make the work community owned, many stakeholders were approached. Continuous liaison was maintained with Gram Panchayat Sarpanch, political leaders, govt. officials, malatdar, ICDS etc. to ensure relief work reaches the needy.
Another task was to convince the team to engage in relief work. There were apprehensions and fears. Families were resisting and also the fear of catching infection paramount. To allay the fears many meetings were conducted, and leadership presence in field ensured along with team all the time. The protective equipment was collected from markets that were open, and provided to team, with training.
“On one side was fear of coronavirus – on one side was our responsibility …there was a lot of dilemma and fear in the team” says Chandrikaben.
Jalpaben, a mother of an infant daughter says “my family had a fear that I can get the infection if I take up this work. I gave them the confidence that I will follow all precautions. I educated many …including leaders and families about care to be taken…. really I feel very happy that I have fulfilled my responsibility as a social worker”
Janak, another field team member said “after seeing so many cases, my family refused me to go. But I gave them confidence and joined my team in relief work”
Maheshbhai says “while there was fear, there was also a commitment. So, the work went off smoothly and we felt appreciated”
The team came over its fears and started work, fully supported by CBOs and local leaders. They were able to reach out to the most marginalized, even in villages where Aatapi is currently not working. The targeted groups of pregnant women, persons with disability, single women, widows, and migrant workers, Adivasi villages were highly appreciative of the timely relief, when nothing had reached them from any other source. This gave the team much needed boost.
“…when we went to meet the migrant workers, they felt happy to see that there is someone who is thinking about us” says Maheshbhai.
Dinesh bhai who is now involved in scale up of the mask making initiative says “in new villages we could create our identity and leaders supported us. We started mask making to develop livelihoods among women with disability. I am proud that I am supporting women who are making masks”
Despite the fears and obstacles that cropped up every day, the entire team reaffirmed their faith and commitment towards serving the community, especially the most marginalised. They narrated stories of appreciation they received from families and also satisfaction they felt in reaching the unreached.
“An old woman was cooking outside her home, when we gave her the kit through CBO leader…she was very happy. Am happy I did this work…it was very satisfying” says Bhupendra bhai, though an accountant, but volunteered to take up the field activity.
Maheshbhai reminisces “a family with two Persons with Disability was reached in Vedach village. There is a blind son, and an orthopedic daughter of an agriculture labour. After COVID -19, lockdown, they were facing a lot of problems. When ration kit was given to them …he thanked us as they had received nothing from anybody else…. apart from ration from PDS.”
As Kamleshbhai puts it “cooperation of leaders was very good, in new villages, people started recognizing us, appreciated us, and were willing to join us…in adivasi villages where no other help had reached…they were very happy. Enjoyed the team work.”
Overall, the experience of Aatapi in responding to a major crisis was also that of self-realization. Not having dabbled in relief work in a major sense till now, this was a great learning experience for most of the team members. COVID pandemic taught everyone something or the other.
Asmitaben, in-charge of Women’s Empowerment program, felt left out as she stays in Vadodara, not able to reach Jambusar in lock down period. She coordinated all activities, working from home and now appreciates the opportunity as a way of learning and getting used to technology in ensuring work doesn’t suffer. “I was in field work earlier. With COVID, I worked from home, made field plans, route plan, documentation… I started using technology which I was not very comfortable earlier …it also brought many changes in me…I feel I can do a lot working from home”
How will we do it…there was a dilemma…but also conviction….and people kept joining us…CBOs, SHGs, FPO… AS many as 2000 kits were distributed and awareness about the pandemic raised in more than 40 villages. With fear there was a conviction and solid commitment, so the team could do it.
Along with all this came a validation of Aatapi’s work, outcome of last 10 years of efforts with CBOs and Local leaders. Local leadership came to the fore in this time of need, leaders played their role in identification, decision making. All the learnings of the many workshops and trainings were used by local leaders.
As Chandrikaben puts it “We took responsibility we were able to convince others to join us and take up this task……we also learnt a lot. At the same time, we also see a lot of work for future for re-thinking our approach and programs in this new environment. One thing that emerges is that village leadership needs to learn disaster management – create an army to take action in any emergency.
When I was going to field….I used to be scared everyday…family used to ask where all did u go…what is surety that u r not infected…used to get scared….what will happen to my family if that happens….was constantly in fear….but continued working…am proud now…have learnt a lot. I can do myself many things….
“My team has also grown and grown strong…had fear…overcame that to play the role…we are happy…”