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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

The pandemic: Bringing out the best, and the worst, in us

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

For South Asia Monitor

If it’s any solace, this dreadful time has given rise to an unnamed bond among strangers—call it humanity, altruism, empathy—but it’s helping many of us stay afloat, writes Azera Parveen Rahman for South Asia Monitor

Some images are hard to let go of. Like that of a hundred pyres burning in mass cremations; or of a woman trying to breathe life into her gasping husband’s mouth in the back of an auto; of a man wailing behind his mask, near an empty hospital stretcher.

As if we weren’t numb already with this seemingly endless cycle of grief, more images appear: of raids and crackdowns on people hoarding oxygen cylinders, creating an artificial shortage, to sell in the black market. There is shock, dismay, but somewhere along the fringes are another set of pictures - of auto drivers in PPE kits, ferrying Covid positive patients to and fro hospitals free of charge; of everyday people distributing food on the roads and at doorsteps of those needing help; of ‘oxygen-langars’ (free oxygen parlors) in gurudwaras. 

In what increasingly feels like a dystopian world, this last set of images—of empathy and altruism—offers a sliver of hope. And most of us are desperately hanging on to it, hoping that it would take us through this dark tunnel of time, to the other end.

Four states and one union territory in India had their elections in multiple phases that concluded last month. Usually, whenever there is an election underway, my social media feed changes tone and color, from people taking pot-shots at each other to downright divisive comments. This time, however, my feed has been peppered with frantic messages and SOS cries for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, and in response, bringing together complete strangers over the last two months. 

On May 10, 2021, India recorded 403,738 new cases of Covid-19, pushing the total tally to 22,296,414, according to the Union health ministry data. The death count spiked to 242,362, with 4,092 deaths every day—a number many journalists reporting from the ground say is grossly underestimated.

Political leadership mum

Amid all this, the silence of the political leadership—which is otherwise loud when tearing down an opponent—has been deafening. Not that many people hung on to any with any hope—you will hardly see any ‘tags’ on Twitter seeking help from political leaders. There have been a few exceptions, but mostly, it has been strangers calling up hospitals, enquiring availability of beds with oxygen or verifying phone numbers for oxygen cylinders and re-routing them to hundreds and thousands, thereby saving precious lives.

A friend, K, who lives with her aged parents and seven-year-old son in Delhi, experienced this first-hand, and I, through her. Her septuagenarian mother tested Covid positive a few weeks back. A diabetic, her health took the downward spiral soon after. I don’t want to get into the details but let’s just say that no one, no one, should have to go through the absolute horror of what she, like many hundreds of others, went through and are still continuing to do so. 

Helpless, we turned to social media and pleaded for any leads of hospital beds available. Within a short span of time, the message was widely circulated, tweeted and re-tweeted by other friends and colleagues. People we didn’t know messaged with phone numbers, a few even offered to verify the information to save us time. My friend’s mother was admitted — have you noticed, how that sounds like a good thing now? — and it was all thanks to the kindness of strangers.

While her mother continued to battle in the hospital, K sat in her car for two days outside the hospital. In this time, she took solace not just from her close friends, but also from strangers, one of who messaged, asking, “How’s Ma (mother)?”  In such trying times, it felt like a hug.

Milk of human compassion

All across the country, there have been numerous such stories that are breaking us down and somehow, keeping us together. There are stories of people offering to buy essentials for the elderly who want to avoid stepping out. On social media, volunteer groups are being formed to collate and verify information regarding the availability of hospital beds, ICUs, oxygen cylinders and pass them on to those who need it because time is of utmost importance. 

Many are reaching out to families, helping arrange for the last rites. One such social media user commented, “I started with verifying and passing on the phone numbers of hospitals; now I have information about where to source wood from and the waiting list in crematoriums.” Yet another commented that he and some of his friends are pooling in resources to help arrange for the last rites when families aren’t able to. 

If it’s any solace, this dreadful time has given rise to an unnamed bond among strangers—call it humanity, altruism, empathy—but it’s helping many of us stay afloat. 

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