#coronavirus


KK Shailaja makes for an unlikely national hero. But the bespectacled, sari-clad, 63-year-old minister of health and social justice – and former science teacher – was an early beacon in India, thanks to her foresight and fast thinking in preparing her state, Kerala, for the pandemic. It is thanks to the quick intervention of the Coronavirus Slayer (as she became known in the Indian press) that the state still has such low mortality rates from Covid-19. In June, Shailaja was recognised for her efforts by the UN. 

“Wuhan University had students from Kerala, and we knew that if the students came back, we’d have to be careful,” she recalls from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city. By 24 January, before the World Health Organization had even declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Kerala’s government had testing, quarantine and treatment protocols in place. Less than a week later, India registered its first coronavirus case in Kerala – a student returning from China, just as Shailaja had predicted.

In the days and weeks that followed, the strange bonding experience of living through a global crisis became our new shared reality. Prime ministers and presidents – some appearing nightly, others once a fortnight – dictated the terms of their people’s movement, and soon country after country declared its version of lockdown. In India, it was 24 March when its population of 1.3 billion was asked to retreat indoors, for what is now seen as one of the largest lockdowns in the world.

The scene was no different from that in London, say, or Paris. A feeling of post-apocalyptic dystopia descended – once traffic-clogged streets became eerily silent; supermarkets were emptied, their shelves ransacked of produce. If the pandemic was unprecedented for the world, in India it arrived as the country leapt from one calamity to another. After months of widespread citizen protests were cut short due to stay-at-home orders, an unparalleled migrant crisis unfolded from north to south. In eastern India, a supercyclone wreaked havoc, while the western farmlands were devoured by a locust swarm. In Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley, a sonic boom startled residents and led to rumours of an alien invasion.

Jama Masjid of Delhi, India’s largest mosque, stands empty during lockdown.

Conspiracy theories (and the Indian Air Force test flight that actually caused the sound) aside, the virus was just one of the many crises the country would have to tackle. And yet, over those first days, between the headlines and hashtags, a new order appeared to be forming across India. As healthcare systems became increasingly overburdened, it was the women of science who began to emerge as some of our most keenly prescient defenders, to say nothing of the day-to-day efforts of women from every stratum of Indian life who volunteered during the ensuing humanitarian crisis.

Take nurse Reshma Mohandas, also from Kerala, who not only contracted and survived the virus herself but resumed work days after her quarantine ended. “I knew I would contract the virus from them,” she says of the 88- and 93-year old couple she tended, when we catch her between shifts at the Kottayam Medical College in Kerala. “Since they were so frail and old, masks were too uncomfortable for them and they couldn’t have them on for too long. But I needed to be around longer, to speak louder and care a little extra.”

Personal sacrifice is the front-line way, though it barely seemed to register for the women we spoke to. On 18 March, Dr Minal Dakhave Bhosale – a virologist at Mylab Discovery Solutions (a young biotech company that develops molecular diagnostic detection kits in the city of Pune) – submitted India’s first coronavirus testing kit for evaluation, hours before she was rushed in for a caesarean section. As her kit (both affordable and efficient) rolled out across the country, she was deep in feeding schedules and monitoring her production line. “It was an emergency situation and our contribution was necessary,” she says of working until the very last possible moment. “We wanted to develop a test that was fast and accurate. And we did exactly that.”

Of course, it’s tempting to ask Bhosale if there is something inherent in the success of female leadership in this pandemic, be it the calm and clarity of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, or the effective management of Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. She smiles and says, “Women are natural problem-solvers, and this is an essential skill in the field of science.”

Prayers are said for a coronavirus victim by a relative and cemetery workers wearing PPE.

In the testosterone-packed corridors of power in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, senior scientist and mother-of-two Dr Nivedita Gupta, of the Indian Council of Medical Research, leads the task force for the country’s Covid-19 testing and treatment protocol. She’s already augmented her regional diagnostic capacity to about 350,000 tests per day and increased testing labs to 1,356 (and counting) from a mere 13 across the country. Reporting to the Prime Minister’s Office, her work is round the clock. “The biggest challenge is to strike a balance between my kids and work,” she says. “I’ve never been this detached from my family.” She spends no more than eight hours at home, catching up on sleep, before she’s back at work. Her neurosurgeon husband has taken over childcare as she continues to try to understand the virus and keep updated on global scientific findings.

Complacency is now the biggest threat. “We have to save lives, but also livelihoods,” warns KK Shailaja. “The lockdowns have partially lifted and we are now facing the second wave. We can’t get overconfident and must continue our prevention first strategy.” Indeed, at the time of writing, India has the world’s third-largest caseload, with the virus rampaging through the country. With the influx of expats to the state since lockdown’s easing, even Kerala, lauded for its initial response, has lately seen cases reach more than a thousand a day. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these women of science is another army, one of silent, often faceless essential workers: grocery shop employees, food delivery agents, sanitisation workers, drivers… She is wearing a face mask, but you can tell from her sparkly eyes that supermarket cashier Pramila Subash Palyekar always greets her customers with a smile. In March, Goa’s AJ Supermarket, where she works, resembled a war zone. “I’ve never seen our stock disappear so fast,” she says, recounting the time of panic buying, when fear was spreading faster than the virus. Like Palyekar, millions of others have been working through the pandemic, despite their modest wages and lack of medical insurance. They are scared of taking the virus home, but, with no alternative, they continue to go to work.

About 1,200 miles north, in Delhi, there is Uber driver Pooja Kumari, who continues to subvert gender roles on roads that are hardly seen as safe or inclusive spaces. Kumari was one of the first women drivers to sign up when the car rental service introduced its Covid-19 services. “I’m proud to be doing my job when all the important professionals – cops, doctors, politicians – are doing their best to help. It feels good to do my bit in this small way,” says Kumari, who scrubs and disinfects her Maruti Suzuki Dzire after each ride.

Some of those unable to get home shelter in Delhi’s Yamuna Sports Complex.

The pandemic has exposed many such ordinary people with extraordinary stories. “I think in unprecedented times like these, survival instincts kick in and give you strength and courage to venture into the unknown,” says Richa Shrivastava. As the managing partner of co-working space Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai, Shrivastava made use of the workshop’s 3D printers and laser cutters to crowdsource and co-create upwards of one million M-19 face shields to help meet the dire need for PPE in our healthcare system.

Then there is Bengaluru-based Mahita Nagaraj, who in March launched a crowdsourcing initiative, Caremongers India, on Facebook, to help the immunocompromised and at-risk elderly by facilitating the delivery of medicines and provisions, and arranging assistance when public transport was unavailable. As the lockdown eases in India, she is no longer clocking 20-hour workdays with the thousands of calls and messages that she did at the start, but she continues to help address queries from nearly 50,000 active members across the globe. “We are an army of people helping out, and our sizeable community offers contacts and solutions to aid at-risk people,” says the single mother, who has been self-isolating from her son as she goes about on-ground work.

For most volunteers, this pandemic, unlike other crises, poses a new set of challenges. They can’t just go out and help. For women, this period has exposed unspoken biases and hierarchies. “There is always a moral dilemma on how our activities can impact our families, or expose them to the risk,” says Rubina Nafees Fatima, the founder of Safa India, a Hyderabad-based non-profit that works for the socioeconomic empowerment of women through skill training. In March, Nafees Fatima sprung to help the country’s enormous migrant population who were left displaced and wage-less through the lockdown. 

“I went through emotional trauma in the first 15 days, as the distressing situation on-ground was horrifying,” she says. Images of millions of migrant workers – men, women, children – trudging in the hot Indian sun to reach their far-off villages by foot on state highways, without water or food, flooded the media. “There was also the challenge of safety as a woman as we walked to highways for relief efforts… I had to ensure that I always had a male team member with me,” she adds.

Migrant labourers are met with police barricades as they attempt to reach their native villages on foot following India’s lockdown announcement.

A pandemic that requires social distancing is possible only for the privileged in a country with one of the world’s largest homeless populations. Already, half of those living in Mumbai’s slums have had coronavirus, compared with 16 per cent of non-slum residents. By mid-August, there were more than 2.7 million cases in India. As this issue goes to press, the country is yet to peak, we are told.

Indeed, this health crisis has turned into a humanitarian crisis so big that it is likely to cause volunteer burnout, even before the unlocking is complete. Until June, caught in the maelstrom of the migrant crisis, Nafees Fatima’s team, along with Youth Feed India, worked across Indian cities to provide food to daily wagers, sex workers and transgender communities, having raised Rs 3.6 crore (36 million rupees) to distribute 65,000 relief packs for 325,000 individuals.

As the pandemic evolves, so does her job as a relief worker. After handling the food crisis and ferrying migrants home, free of cost, volunteers like Nafees Fatima are diverting their attention to what health minister KK Shailaja suggested – rebuilding small businesses and keeping street vendors afloat.

“Our next goal is to work deeper towards sustainable livelihoods so that vulnerable families do not sink to a low – pawning their belongings, turning to money lenders – at the time of emergencies. We are providing them with financial assistance to restart their businesses,” she adds. As economies the world over nervously await the long-term consequences of our upended lives, it is the might of these few good women who will be India’s catalysts for change.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of British Vogue.

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