Coronavirus: Over 22,000 'caremongers' help vulnerable and elderly Indians under lockdown

An elderly woman at an awareness event about the coronavirus at a hospital in Siliguri, India, on Feb 21, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - It was perhaps the 700th phone call Ms Mahita Nagaraj received that day. And it was an emergency.

"A woman in Chandigarh called to say that her elderly father was bleeding profusely," said Ms Nagaraj.

India, however, has been under lockdown to prevent coronavirus transmission since March 24. Public transport has ceased, citizens are not allowed to drive their own vehicles, and app-based cabs are no longer operating.

Ms Nagaraj, who is based in Bangalore, contacted someone she knew in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab in north India. An ambulance soon took the ailing elder to the nearest hospital.

"In a time of fear, anxiety and panic, we should spread love and care to those who are struggling," said Ms Nagaraj, a digital marketer and single mum to a 12-year-old boy.

Small acts of love - that was the idea behind Ms Nagaraj setting up Caremongers India, an informal group of volunteers across India who help the elderly, the physically challenged, those with pre-existing medical conditions and expectant or new mothers navigate the period of enforced social distancing.

From early March, many states in India told people to stay home and practise social distancing. States like Karnataka, where Ms Nagaraj lives, closed shops and schools.

At the time, a friend of hers from the US and one from the UK asked her to drop off groceries to their ageing parents living in Bangalore.

Afterwards, Ms Nagaraj posted on Facebook offering help to other friends and family. She received a flood of messages from both, beseeching her to help their parents and grandparents and offering their own assistance in return.

To match the requests with volunteers, Ms Nagaraj started a Facebook group called Caremongers India on March 17. The name, an optimistic inversion of "scaremongering", was inspired by a BBC report on volunteers helping people in Canada. In 24 hours, the Facebook group had thousands of members.

"But we had a dual problem. The demographic we were catering to is not Facebook-savvy, and the older generation is also a somewhat proud one. They were reluctant to seek assistance publicly," said Ms Nagaraj.

She then announced a telephone helpline on March 20. The number went viral and in 24 hours she received 363 calls. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown starting on March 24, things have progressed rapidly.

Today, Caremongers has over 22,000 volunteers across India. They have WhatsApp groups to coordinate in every city and state. Ms Nagaraj, who handles the helpline alone, says she now receives 700 to 800 calls and about 2,000 messages every day.

"We get calls from Kashmir to Kanyakumari," she said, referring to the northernmost and southernmost tips of India. Most requests come from lower- and middle-income families.

The kind of aid the Caremongers provide reveals the array of challenges Indians under lockdown are facing.

Two days ago, a woman just out of surgery in Bangalore wanted to return to her family in Tirupati, over 250km away. A Caremonger got an ambulance to transport her.

A 104-year-old woman in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, had to send her two nurses home and was left all alone. She received meals from her neighbours, but needed someone to buy her medicines.

An HIV-positive man in his 40s called when he had enough medication for only the next two days. As the government sells antiretroviral drugs, a volunteer bought them for him using a WhatsApp photo of the doctor's prescription.

Another man who woke up from post-operative care in Bangalore found the hospital canteen shut down. "He called us when he had not had food (to eat) or a drop of water to drink for 12 hours after surgery," said Ms Nagaraj.

A 76-year-old man called when, on his return home one night after a 14-day quarantine in a government facility after arriving from the US, residents of his apartment block ostracised him and locked the gates.

Many others who usually go for chemotherapy or dialysis using public transport had volunteers with vehicle passes pick them up and drop them home after treatment. Where Caremongers cannot help, they redirect the request to trustworthy civil society groups or non-profit organisations.

"The group exists because we are trying to promote social distancing among high-risk groups. So, we follow the rules even as we go out of the way to help people," Ms Nagaraj said.

Volunteers going out wear masks and gloves and leave bags with medicines or groceries at the door or gate. If the police stop them, they are instructed to turn back home and not argue or fight.

"The group is such a haven of positivity. It immediately dispels any feelings of loneliness or helplessness," said Ms Nagaraj.

The only difficulty, she added, has been isolating herself from her son and mother, with whom she normally lives.

"Since I'm going out a lot, I sent my son to a friend's house and my mother is with my grandmother," she said.

"But this moment is bigger than individuals, bigger than family. It is about community. Any small help can go a long way," said Ms Nagaraj.

Caremongers India can be reached at +91-95911-68886.

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