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After finishing my day at AIIMS, Delhi, I would set out to check on some of my patients in palliative care or provide telemedicine consultation. I am actively associated with two NGOs in Assam working on this prospective — Kavi-Krishna Telemedicine Centre and Pratishruti Palliative Care. Both of these NGOs work for cancer patients in Assam, and even in Delhi.
And then, came March 23, 2020, the day India went under a sudden lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic.
On that very day, I got a call from Assam Bhawan, New Delhi, and Dr Dhananjay Ghanwat, IPS, Dhemaji district, Assam, asked me to help in proper coordination of the Assamese patients who came to Delhi for treatment and also to monitor the home quarantine for people in Assam.
No one was ready for such a lockdown; we had no clue where to even begin. But, as they say, “Where there is a will, there is always a way.” The team was formed within a day, and training was done over video conferencing. Each person was given a list of 10 quarantined people who were to be monitored by them, along with the dos and don’ts criteria.
Alongside, I had to take care of the cancer patients who were stuck in Delhi during this lockdown and were suffering in one way or the other. Initially, we had no means to reach them. Again as they say, “If you want to help anyone, the universe conspires to help you too.” The North-east Spanner came into action and helped me reach my immediate patients in need during this time by providing transportation along with proper security, at all times of the day.
But now new problems started arising as people came to me for help beyond counselling. Food, medicine, water, — how do I arrange these basic necessities for them? I was at a loss. But angels persist, and during this fight against COVID-19, what I realized is that Humanity exists. A group, “Lockdown Heroes” helped me provide food and necessary items to the panic-stricken Assamese cancer patients and their families which had to stay back in Maharashtra due to the sudden lockdown. I came in contact with one of the “Lockdown Heroes” — Ajinkiya from Mumbai, who got me in contact with two organizations, BaBappu Food Movement and United for Humanity.
These two organizations helped me reach people, including people from the North-East who were stuck in Delhi without food, water and other necessary supplies. With their help, we were able to reach out to several thousand people who called me for food requirements, irrespective of the place and time in and around Delhi, Ghaziabad, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, etc.
I remember clearly that a lady from the Red Light Area had contacted me for food, water and sanitary pads because they had run out of money and were starving. I requested Mr Aarish and Mr Saif Kidwai from BaBappu Food Movement, and within a couple of days, these ladies received their necessary requirements and are still being provided necessary items by the organization.
These NGOs not only aided with food distribution, they also helped provide medicines to the patients whenever required. I clearly remember one such incident where a Colon cancer patient from Assam who had come to Delhi for treatment got infected with COVID-19 in one of the private hospitals. The Helping Hands NGO of New Delhi, along with NE Spanner, took the initiative to transfer him immediately to one of the COVID-19 hospitals for Hospital Quarantine.
His immediate family — wife and a young daughter, tested negative and were taken to their home for Home Quarantine. The family didn’t have food and water, and no neighbour was ready to help them out. I called Wasim and he made sure that the family had enough food and water to survive with, which he delivered at midnight on that very day. Further, he even went to the hospital to get the medicines required by the patient during his cancer treatment.
During this time, the daughter was panicked and needed constant psychological counselling. I tried to provide counselling to the best of my ability, and further, Pratishruti helped arrange sessions with trained psychologists through teleconferencing.
The COVID-19 patient was released from the hospital after 14 days with a suggestion of staying in Home Quarantine for the next 7 days. The family stayed in a single room and had to be transferred to a safer place. With the help of Assam Association of Delhi and NE Spanner, the family was transferred to Assam Bhawan. However, when the patient came home, further reports revealed him to be COVID-19 positive again. The family was panic-stricken.
Kavi-Krishna joined the fight, and its team of specialists helped us coordinate accordingly to keep the patient under constant observation. They helped him fight through the symptomatic condition for the next 14 days. The patient is now COVID-19 negative and has restarted his cancer treatment. This is one incident, among many, which made me realize that beyond everything, Humanity exists.
United for Humanity even helped me send the necessary sanitization equipment required to Amphan-affected areas.
In another incident, I remember a family who was in quarantine and called me for food from a village in Assam, almost at 2 o’clock at night. In the background, I could hear crying children. Immediately, I made some calls, and the very next morning, I could see the pictures with their smiling faces as they were being supplied food, sent to my mobile. Elsewhere, a person had got stuck in Roing, Arunachal Pradesh, because of the sudden lockdown. His family was in another district of Arunachal Pradesh, and they didn’t have any food to survive with. With one call, I was able to reach the gram panchayat of the area, and they provided food to this family.
Our team is in constant coordination with the local doctors, Asha workers, nurses, and police to help out and reach out to the people who were in quarantine. The period of two months of my life from March till May 15 was a period when I was working round the clock to perform my duty as a frontline worker during this pandemic, and also ensuring that my help went beyond medicines to ensure that basic needs of my patients were being met.
But, a coin has two sides; one needs to see the other side of the story too, for a better understanding of the situation during this pandemic.
I travelled to Assam on May 31, 2020, to start my duty assigned at the Assam-Arunachal Border. I was ready to serve my own state now. After reaching the airport, we were taken to the quarantine centre for the mandatory swab test. I could have easily opted to take Government Official aid since I was on duty, but I opted to go as a normal citizen in order to better witness the situation. At the quarantine centre, I could experience the stigma that has come attached to this disease. The officials treated us as if we were COVID-19 positive, and refused to help us with luggage or even touch our things!
The worst, however, was yet to come, as I arrived home. I was placed in home quarantine. The people in my neighbourhood called the police for verification. The police officials already knew about my visit as they were pre-informed about my official work by the higher officials. It ached my heart to see the discriminatory way my family was being treated during this period by the very people in our community I had grown up around. Except for a few neighbours, no one came forward to help our family.
Further, no government health official or Asha worker came to verify my stay or ask about my health. It was the higher officials with whom I had been working under the COVID-19 monitoring project who took care of my reports and received regular health updates. After completing the necessary quarantine of my family, I informed the authorities and began my duties to help the people in my hometown.
I was faced with a great irony: I was facing discrimination in my hometown even after working night and day for the people. Further, during lockdown when I was capable of helping out or reaching out to the NE people in different parts of the country, people in my own hometown were starving.
As I came to know about that, a whole different world of bureaucracy revealed itself to me. Red Cross society was given the responsibility of distributing food to the people below the poverty level. While they had done it in the other areas, in my hometown, no one was even aware of it. I had to then take the help of the Disaster Management higher authorities to help those starving people out.
I came to understand the difference between arrogance and illiteracy. Nowadays, whenever you make a call, the caller tune tells you what COVID-19 is and asks you not to discriminate against the healthcare workers. But, in reality, the picture is different.
In Delhi, during my duty period I felt the touch of humanity, whereas in my hometown, the people still need to be educated. The fear, borne from ignorance, is so entrenched in their minds that they end up hurting people. We all need to fight against this system, educate oneself and others about it, and most importantly, not discriminate against others.
During this time, I also felt the importance of my fight for Ethical Secrecy of the patients to be maintained since these patients were the ones who were in trauma and constant panic, when they arrived home after treatment by their society. There are many cases which I came across and still am coming across where people are facing discrimination during their home quarantine days and even after it.
We are constantly doing our jobs, stretching ourselves thin to help out the people in need of our guidance and help. What pains us is the discrimination we have faced. It proves the importance of educating ourselves scientifically. Together, we shall be able to get through these darker days, but beyond that, we need to understand the importance of education to avoid a situation of ignorance in our society where we don’t understand the importance of the people working for our society and start discriminating against them.