Women students volunteer for Covid relief
What was the biggest difference that you made to the world around you when you were a student? (Not counting the readers who are students now.)
Let me tell you the story of the time I led a student revolution.
In our final year of engineering, we – a bunch of boring straight-A students – led a protest against a rule that would affect our batchmates with a failing grade in some courses. The new rule would set them back a year instead of allowing them to pass the courses in the final term, and we wanted the institute to roll the rule back.
If people asked us why we did it, we might have said we were fighting for truth, justice, fairness, and to save the careers of our fellow students.
Looking back, the real reason why we did it was, of course, Rang De Basanti.
The movie had released a few months back. And now that our survival needs – getting jobs – were met, we wanted to move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of B.Tech. needs to self-actualization – becoming Aamir Khan.
Our struggles turned out to be far less than Aamir Khan’s in RDB. We tried peace talks in the morning and were promptly shooed away by the peon outside the Director’s office like the pesky flies we were.
After lunch (because revolution and all is fine, but what sort of maniac skips lunch?) we staged a walkout from lectures, along with the rest of our bored batchmates who always appreciated a good mass bunk.
By 4pm, our demands had been met. Clearly, the Director was bored too.
As revolutions go, ours involved only slightly more effort than a post-lunch nap.
But as one of the leaders of such a historic student movement, I feel qualified to share that the students of today are, mercifully, a lot more involved, and willing to stake a lot more of their lives and comforts. Their motives are truly selfless.
Most of them probably haven’t even watched RDB anyway.
Covid19 abhi khatm nahi hua hai.
A number of organizations, including youth organizations, came forward over these past few weeks to step in and connect people to scarce life-saving resources. At a time when every minute that stood between a patient and the healthcare they needed could be the difference between life and death, these volunteers proved to be an invaluable source of aid for many families.
One such youth organization that stepped up to volunteer was the student body of Miranda House, an all-women college in Delhi University.
One of the students, Srishti, first discussed the idea with the Principal of the college.
“The Principal was very supportive. After the conversation with her, I brought some friends on board, and pretty soon, it evolved into a team with dozens of student volunteers.”
The students divided up into teams, each managing a different vertical – hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, medicines, plasma, etc. Srishti sent a message with all details to the Principal.
“We made a Google sheet with all the leads uploaded on it. The plan was to update this sheet everyday with fresh and verified leads so that any family in need could find a resource on it. I sent a message with the link to the sheet, and the names and contact numbers of the volunteers to our Principal.”
A violation of privacy
However, pretty soon, this message – with all the contact information of the students in it – was found circulating on the internet.
“I suppose someone circulated the message among the faculty members. Everyone knew of a family in need at that time, so soon our numbers were circulating in the public domain. None of us had consented to this.”
Eshaa, the lead volunteer for food and tiffin services for covid-hit families, calls out social media influencers who irresponsibly shared the team’s numbers with millions of people without bothering to check if the ladies had consented to it.
“One of India’s prominent TV journalists – who has 9.1 million followers on Twitter as of today – tweeted our numbers out. Within minutes, we got flooded with calls and messages. One would expect that if they see women students’ numbers on social media, any responsible person would check before sharing them forward. But even the so-called public figures did not bother.”
Akshita, the lead volunteer for ambulance services, says that she wrote to many such people, asking them to delete the numbers.
“Party workers of big national parties, people with large followings were sharing our numbers. These people are a part of the system that has let India down. They should be doing this work themselves instead of sharing numbers of students – that too women students – on a public platform.”
Gauri, the lead volunteer for sourcing medicines, says that what followed after the numbers became public was quite overwhelming.
“Each one of us started receiving calls on our phones at all hours of the day and night. What began as an idea for a helpdesk became a helpline outside our control. I still get calls in the middle of the night. As a woman, this opens you up to harassment. My parents are very concerned about my safety.”
“Can you arrange for a bed for me? And can you lie in it with me?”
And rightly so. Vitti, who was the lead volunteer for hospital beds, started getting lewd calls as soon as the numbers went public.
“Men would call me at all hours and ask, ‘Can you arrange for a bed for me? And can you lie in it with me?’ I cannot imagine the kind of person who thinks of sexualizing a hospital bed and harassing a volunteer at a time when thousands in the country are dying without one.”
Another volunteer, Anchal, says it is difficult to filter out genuine calls from harassers.
“Some callers would begin by asking about resources but then start asking for my Instagram id, my age, etc. I would cut these calls immediately but then harassing messages would begin. Just last night, a man texted me, ‘I need oxygen and hospital’. When I asked for more details, he sent me a picture of his genitals.”
“I don’t have any words for such people.”
Eshaa says that all of the volunteers have had to remove their display pictures and convert their WhatsApp accounts to business accounts to protect what was left of their privacy after their numbers went public.
“I routinely get harassed on call or text. I don’t always have the opportunity to record calls before it happens, so I have no proof it happened. Knowing the way our police operates, I wouldn’t trust them to get justice for us anyway.”
She describes how even women seeking help for their own family members are getting harassed right now.
“At one point, I was making calls at 1 a.m., looking for an oxygen refill for a family in need. The man on the call told me ‘Yes, you can come here – we have oxygen.’ When I forwarded the lead to the family, and they called him, he said there is no oxygen. I called him back and confronted him. He had no reply. He had thought that I was asking for myself and, hearing a woman’s voice, called me to this remote location at 1 a.m. If I had truly been the one in need and gone there trusting his word, I could have been kidnapped or raped.”
“If I could build a hospital for you right now, I would.”
Akshita says that people in distress often misunderstand their capacity to help.
“A lot of people mistook us as healthcare service providers. My second sentence on every call is ‘Sir, I am just a student volunteer, I am not the one providing these services.’ The other day, a private lab called me, saying, ‘Someone has died and the body is lying here. Please send an ambulance to pick it up.’ I was speechless. The situation is so bad that healthcare organizations are looking to students to send ambulances!”
Vitti adds, ” The expectations are off the charts. I have been asked on call if I can come over to inject a medicine to a patient.”
An unfortunate part of life in Delhi NCR is that it operates entirely on networks. ‘Who you know’ is often the currency to get even basic services. But it is another marker of how bad this crisis is that well-connected adults are asking students to provide contacts for life-saving services.
“A Colonel in the Army called me 15 times at 4am. I woke up thinking someone was dying. He said ‘Can you get me some connections to get a bed in Base hospital?’ I was shocked. How was he expecting me – a student – to have better connections in the Army than a him – a Colonel?”, says Anchal.
Srishti reiterates that this shows how bad things have become.
“My contacts are 1% of theirs, yet they are seeking help from me. I respond by saying, ‘Sir, if I could build a hospital for you right now, or come and give you oxygen right now, I would. But I just can’t.’ When I say this, some lash out at me.”
Anchal adds that she too gets yelled at by callers routinely.
“Some callers appreciate our work, but many have shouted at me. One man had asked for a lead, and after a few minutes, called me back, shouting, ‘Itna time laga hai bhejne mein?’ (Does it take you this long to send a text?) When I tried to explain to him that I am verifying leads before sending them, he just cut the call. I don’t know what makes people feel like they have the right to treat us that way.”
Srishti thinks that being a woman has something to do with it.
“Had I been a man, the chances of people treating me with this sense of entitlement would have been much less. As a woman, if I am not giving them 100% of my emotional capacity, somehow I am failing at my duty and they feel like they have the right to behave badly.”
“You are murderers.”
Tavissi, the lead volunteer for oxygen support, says that this entitlement also manifests as anger, particularly when things go south.
“Many men are accustomed to taking their anger out on women. Right now, they have found us to take their anger out on. I got a frantic call from a man begging for urgent help for his mother who needed oxygen support. I immediately shared the contact of an oxygen plant near him. Unfortunately, his mother didn’t make it. He called me up later, screaming, ‘You are the reason she is dead, you are the reason I couldn’t meet her before she died. I will blame you forever.’“
“We are just students, trying our best to help. Yet, we routinely get messages like ‘You are murderers.’ when someone is unable to get the help they need in time. It is a failure of the system but people are finding convenient scapegoats in us. I feel like if I were a man, they wouldn’t feel free to call and blame me like this. It has taken a huge toll on my mental health.”
Vitti feels that when women try to emotionally support a person in distress, they often assign blame to her if things down work out later.
“When someone calls us, they want to spend the first 5mins talking about how no one has responded to them for days. As emotionally sensitive women, we try to give them a patient hearing and counsel them to the extent possible. But the flip side of this is that when things don’t work out, they hold us personally responsible for it. People have called me and said, ‘You killed my mother.’ Even if we put our phones aside for an hour or so, it is very difficult to get these calls out of our head.”
The mental health of volunteers
An average 20-something student is overnight held responsible for people’s lives. Her privacy is violated and her mobile number is shared publicly. Her phone starts ringing 24×7 and many of these callers sexually harass her. It is no surprise then that the mental health of this team has taken a severe hit.
The problem is so severe that the college has tied up with a clinical psychologist who offered pro bono counseling the student volunteers. Gauri says that this has been a lifeline for her in the past weeks.
“As rewarding as it is to help people, it also takes a toll on your mental health. The psychologist has been the only reason I have been able to keep it together. This also highlights the need to have such counselling for every healthcare practitioner – something that is not even a priority in most government hospitals of our country.”
Vitti says that the guilt gets to you, even when you know it is not your fault.
“The subject of death is triggering for any human being. Add to that the burden of blame that many families want to lay on our shoulders. Some of us already had mental health issues and personal problems to begin with and all of this has made it much, much worse. We have to constantly tell each other ‘You deserve a break.’ because otherwise we would never be able to grant rest to ourselves.”
Gauri adds that self-preservation can only be done through boundary setting, but the team was stripped of their right to set any boundaries when their numbers were shared.
“Knowing, as I do, the sense of desperation out there, I cannot just put my phone on airplane mode and go to sleep at night. The guilt of missing a call when someone could be in an emergency takes over and I keep my phone on. On a good night, I get 4 hours of sleep.”
The Bright Side
There are, of course, high points that keep the team going.
Gauri says that small messages of appreciation go a long way for boosting their morale.
“I have got messages like ‘Keep up the good work, you are helping complete strangers.’ The value of these redeeming moments is inexplicable. When someone asked us before forwarding our numbers – even that basic courtesy is a heartwarming thing for us, given the kind of disregard many others showed for our privacy.”
Akshita remembers a particular gentleman’s apology to her.
“One night, I was fielding calls till 2am. I was exhausted but the calls kept coming. At one point, I answered the call and just said, ‘Sir, it is 2am. I am a woman volunteer. You could have texted instead of called.’ He was very apologetic and even after two days – once he had got the resources he was looking for – he texted me again just to apologise for calling at an odd hour.”
Srishti says that even this basic sense of care goes a long way to keep a volunteer going.
“One day, I had just heard that someone I was trying to help had passed away. On the next call, the exhaustion probably showed in my voice. The woman on the other end asked me ‘Are YOU all right?’ I thanked her for asking, and told her what had happened. She heard me out and said, ‘You should take care of yourself right now. I will send a WhatsApp with my request later.’ We remember such small acts of kindness.”
And then, there is always the biggest motivating factor of all – saving a life.
Akshita says that four out of ten people she helps text her back a ‘Thank you.’ and even that kind of success keeps her going.
Srishti says, “I saved five lives in one day, just as one volunteer. We know for a fact that our efforts are helping.”
Righting some wrongs they shouldn’t have had to.
This effort – like many others in the country – began as an honest attempt at helping. The team’s gender was not material to their work when they started.
However, as it so often happens with womaning in India – right from their numbers becoming public, to the harassment that followed, to the blame game, and the sense of entitlement – being a woman catches up, and not in a good way.
Work like this takes an emotional toll irrespective of gender. But, as always, there is that order of magnitude extra toll attached to doing it as a woman.
Ultimately, the women of Miranda House – and all the other youth volunteers who are stepping up across the country – are young students. Saving lives was never supposed to be their burden.
Vitti points out an irony in the way the last few years have unfolded.
“Just before covid hit India, it was the same student community that was facing ridicule and attacks for standing up and protesting. We said these structures would fail this country, and we were tear-gassed and lathi-charged in response. And now, some of the very people who were attacking us are calling us for lifesaving help.”
The team has student internships, assignments, projects, and summer jobs that they have – all cast aside, forgotten – while they focus all their time and energies on helping people and saving lives.
“But we remain students at the end of the day. We are not trained to be first responders.”, Vitti says.
Srishti says that her family still wants her to call the whole operation off.
“They are worried about what this experience is doing to our mental health. They want us to just switch our phones off and call the whole thing off. But we still keep going because we appreciate the crisis at hand. But this was never supposed to be our job.”
Eshaa adds, “We are doing something that the authorities should have been doing. No 20-year-old should ever be put in a position of saving someone’s life.”
I salute the youth of India for saving lives they should never have had to. The future, it seems, is in better hands than ours.
If you are sitting at home right now, wanting to help during the covid crisis but unsure how to, do read this piece I wrote last week. If you are looking for Covid Aid fundraisers to donate to, there is a list in this post. And if this relentless second wave has left you feeling exhausted, anxious, and depressed, maybe reading these stories will help.
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