Coronavirus: Celebrities against pandemic in Tamil Nadu

Actor and politician Kamal Haasan launched a volunteer project to help change Chennai from a red to a green zone. PHOTO: MAKKAL NEEDHI MAIAM

With almost 4000 new Covid-19 cases reported daily in Tamil Nadu, film personalities are trying to do their part in fighting the pandemic.

But political rivalries and fears of infection have made volunteering a challenge.

"Citizen participation is important in times of calamity," said actor and politician Kamal Haasan. The multilingual actor has worked in over 220 films and is the founder of political party Makkal Needhi Maiam.

On June 5, Mr Haasan launched a volunteer project called Naame Theervu (we are the solution) to help change Tamil Nadu capital Chennai, where he lives, from "a red to a green zone". The city accounts for over 50 per cent of infections and deaths state-wide.

With over 90,000 reported cases, Tamil Nadu state has the third highest number of Covid-19 infections in India.

Public health experts have criticised the state for premature re-opening of wholesale markets and liquor stores that led to crowding, inadequate testing and a disproportionate emphasis on policing rather than educative messaging that ended up dissuading people from reporting their symptoms.

As infections multiplied and hospitals were overwhelmed, the state imposed a stringent second lockdown till July 31.

"After initially discouraging volunteer efforts, fearing that some other political party or public personality will get the credit, the government is now stretched to the limit. It is finally working with citizens to help those in need," said a senior social worker in Chennai who did not want to be named.

Naame Theervu now has over 3200 registered volunteers, including the veteran actor's fans. They have helped more than 7600 families who called for help with groceries, medicines and transport. The team has also installed about 280 sanitiser stands across Chennai.

"I'm willing to blur our political lines. This is not the time for profit or politics. We want to collaborate with the government if they let us," said Mr Haasan.

Compared to Maharashtra, the seat of Bollywood, and neighbouring Kerala, where film personalities, social workers and non-profits have worked with the political administration to issue educative messages through social media, distribute food, arrange transport and volunteer on the ground, Tamil Nadu has seen relatively muted involvement from public figures.

In April, the state government announced that only local municipal authorities could distribute cooked food packets and rations, and others could contribute funds to the government. When community and youth groups criticised this, and opposition parties announced they would challenge it in court, the government clarified that it had only advised volunteers to stay safe.

Mr Haasan recalled that in April, the Singapore government had requested him, actor Rajnikanth and music composer AR Rahman to issue a video message for its Tamil-speaking citizens and migrant workers.

"I was so impressed that they reached out for this, to send a message to people. This is what citizen engagement is… it is a greater need of the hour than using the police to commandeer people," Mr Haasan told The Straits Times.

Most celebrities in Tamil Nadu have contributed to the state and central government funds earmarked for Covid-19-related aid.

Actor Vijay donated 13 million rupees and actor Ajith 12.5 million rupees to the chief minister's relief fund and PM Care set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their fan clubs have distributed some rations to the poor.

Superstar Rajnikanth donated 5 million rupees and actor Ms Nayanthara 2 million rupees to the Film Employees Federation of South India to help thousands of film technicians who had no work during the lockdown. Actors Surya, Vijay Sethupathi and Sivakarthikeyan also donated 1 million rupees each, while actors Parthiban and Prakash Raj donated rice.

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