All can be pandemic good Samaritans

By Albert Thyrniang

 ‘Langar’ is a Persian word that came to be used in Punjabi meaning a community kitchen or a community meal.  The word has come to be associated with Sikhism. Many Gurdwaras serve vegetarian meals free of cost to absolutely anyone.  The practice attracts particularly the homeless but also visitors avail of the service. People have been moved by witnessing people sitting on the floor being served a meal.

In the midst of the ravaging pandemic a Gurdwara in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad bordering Delhi extended the community service of providing oxygen to COVID patients who need to breathe to survive. The ‘oxygen langar’ came to the aid of hundreds of distressed people with their falling oxygen levels. The initiative has inspired other Gurdwaras across the country to do the same. Recently the Sikh community in Shillong announced that it has set up an “oxygen langar” for COVID-19 patients and are ready to let the needy breathe the priceless air if the situation arises. This gesture must be appreciated.

During this pandemic we heard, read and see heart-warming stories of good Samaritans who ignore the threat of the virus and choose to help the needy. Take for example the group of Muslim youths in Hyderabad who performed the last rites of more than 1,600 Covid-dead including Muslims, Hindus and Christians; Bhavana Pandita, a homemaker in Ghaziabad, who initially started provided home-cooked food to neighbours but ended up forming a group with volunteers to expand her voluntary service; the Cardiologist, Syed Amjad Bashir in Maharashtra who has built and inaugurated a 35-bed hospital for Covid patients out of his savings; the auto rickshaw owner-cum-driver Javed Khan in Bhopal who converted his auto rickshaw into a makeshift ambulance after seeing seriously-ill Covid patients being taken in bicycles or even pushcarts. Harsh Mandavia and his mother Heena Mandavia in Mumbai who fed over 22,000 meals, 55,000 rotis and 6,000 homemade sweets when the second wave hit the city; the 56-year old Delhi cop, ASI Rakesh Kumar, father of 3 who has been performing the last rites of unclaimed bodies of Covid-19 victims at a crematorium besides performing his duties; the Mumbai police of a station who contributed Rs 500 to an old lady flower seller who begged she had no other means of surviving during the COVID curfew days; the author and entrepreneur Rheea Mukherjea of Bengaluru who has fed eight families in the last two weeks or so with the help of people who bring home made food to her ‘kitchen’.

From providing free meals, arranging for oxygen, coordinating on availability of beds in hospitals, giving dignified burials, these and many other examples of kindness and empathy prove that humanity does come of age during a disaster. The on-going unprecedented national health crisis has once again shown that the best in humans does emerge at the worst of times.

In Meghalaya the traditional institutions, particularly the Rangbah Shnong won accolades for their roles in tackling the ‘first wave’ last year. The village and local committees collaborated with the State Government in running community quarantine centres, facilitating accommodation of returnees in quarantine facilities, manning of entry points, supervising containment zones, enforcing shutting down of shops and even restrict vehicular movements. The grass-roots traditional bodies played a crucial part in the fight against the virus. Practically all villages set up their own quarantine centres with or without government support. Videos and images were shared on social media of the facilities that were established to prevent the outbreak in the state. From early on the State Government entrusted the designated responsibilities to the village headmen and their council. The success was visible.

Against this background it was a surprise to see the other day in media reports that some headmen in localities in Shillong have refused to set up community quarantine centres. Dearth of funds, lack of space, want of volunteers, etc., were given as reasons for their inability to comply with the urge of the Government to once again partner with it to defeat the more devastating virus. If not contained the fragile health care system in the state could collapse. God forbid the distressing scenes of Mumbai, Bengaluru or Delhi could be here as well.

The experience of the ‘first wave’ might have influenced the decision of the ‘Rangbah shnong’ in Shillong. Talking to some headmen in villages they were disappointed with the Government last year. They were not given the promised financial support to set up quarantine centres and in managing them. Management of schools and other facilities also complained that the State Government forgot everything once the virus subsided. Many asked, ‘Who has benefited from the Rs 399 crore of Covid-related expenditure as many stakeholders were left high and dry’? A public representative was heard speaking for caterers and service providers that their remunerations were hard to come by. So where did the inflated amount go? The headmen in Shillong too might have been led down by the ‘ungrateful’ attitude of the Government after their commendable job. Laxity has made residents of some localities to defy the present lockdown order. Authorities have failed to enforce a strict lockdown. Suggestions have already been given to empower the local headmen to enforce lockdowns under their jurisdictions. The traditional heads might have felt that the Government needs them only during crises.

A solution seems to have been arrived at. The reluctant Rangbah Shnongs have agreed to set up community quarantine centres with government aid. It is good news. But to make village heads feel important only during an emergency is a poor reflection of governance.

It has been established by now that the second wave is/was due to complacency, callousness, arrogance and incompetence. We blame the governments at the state and centre for being complacent after the virus abated. We point fingers at politicians for organising huge election rallies that turned super spreaders. We take aim at the Kumbh Mela for being the ‘biggest super-spreader in the pandemic’s history’. But complacency, callousness and arrogance are also faults of the common citizens.

We all know we need not follow politicians. We all know the virus is still alive and kicking. We need not be complacent and callous. We need not throw away our masks in public as politicians do in election assemblies. We need not forget social distancing though our leaders flout the rule to win elections. We too have our ‘Kumbh Melas’.

 Looking back we recall our complacency and callousness right from November/December last year up to March/April this year. Restrictions on social and religious gatherings were still in place but we ignored them. Christmas celebrations were normal especially in rural areas. Churches were packed. Marriage functions were as usual. Sports and entertainments too were back. Markets were reopened. Travels resumed. Schools restarted. Everything went back to pre-pandemic era. People spotted with masks were rare. Social distancing was forgotten. How do we expect government officials to implement wearing masks and maintaining of social distancing everywhere? Of course the insistence on and especially implementing of protocols went into off mode from the authorities as well. The pandemic was supposed to change our lifestyles in certain ways. It has not.

 Came early April and the Easter celebrations were in full swing. Visuals of religious gathering like church blessings and processions were seen in Facebook. A number church leaders in the country have succumbed to COVID-19. Many more have been infected. Religious gatherings might have been spreaders. Certainly Kumbh Mela is not the only culprit. Then came the GHADC elections. The effect has already been felt. Complacency and callousness crept in.

 One of the reasons for complacency and callousness was the ‘faulty’ diagnoses. In December last year in my village six people were tested positive. They were kept in home ‘isolation.’ How do people isolate themselves in a rural home? After two/three days they were back with their normal duties. Villagers say none of their contacts were tested. People saw the cases as fake. After the incident the fear for COVID-19 disappeared. People who had planned for a sober Christmas and New Year celebration cancelled all earlier decisions.

 In early April, 12 inmates of a hostel in Tura were found to be with the virus. However, all their contacts were negative. As this writer was in that very institution many messaged me raising suspicion on the diagnostic kits. It is for this reason the people of a village in Jongksha refused to be tested as they could not believe that the index patient had COVID. When the testing tools are unreliable, complacency and callousness imperceptibly follows.   

 The tools may be defective but we are certain the virus is accelerating virulently. The outbreak is exploding. The daily death record is 3000-4000. Our state could also face the brunt. The state capital is already under full lockdown. We can be good Samaritans by not helping the spread. Wearing masks in public is one of the easiest practices to be a Samaritan. Coronavirus loves complacency and callousness.

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