The COVID-19 pandemic served as a testament to the power of mankind, its resilience and its hope in restoration. While we heard an ample amount of information on the adverse effects of the pandemic, we thought of covering a story of hope. This is the story of Karpagam, a 22-year-old Master’s student from Chennai who worked for the Greater Chennai Corporation as a ‘Psycho-social Support’ volunteer for COVID-19 patients. We asked Karpagam a bunch of questions about her experience and understood the truth behind the scenes, in its raw and unfiltered nature.
Yosee: Hello Karpagam, thank you for accepting to do this. Let’s get right into the questions, my first question is – What made you choose this type of volunteering? Did you have any second thoughts about it?
K: The first few days of lockdown were emotionally overwhelming. The uncertainty about finishing my master’s, not bidding my friends goodbye, staying indoors with family for longer hours continued to amplify my stress level. We all have our coping mechanisms, but this was the first time every single person was experiencing something like this. Turning to my parents, friends and acquaintances wasn’t an option, we were all equally petrified.
In short, I just couldn’t deal with the thoughts inside my head. I wanted to step out & take action. One of my professors sent me this link for volunteering with the municipal body of Chennai, I immediately signed up without any second thoughts. Quite frankly, at that point, I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of this issue and underestimated what was coming my way.
Y: Sometimes, helping others is an act of helping yourself. I’d like to know more about the demographics of the COVID-19 patients you contacted during your remote volunteering. Stuck in two different places, you spoke to an average of 30 people a day. What was the age group of people you spoke to?
K: It is very difficult to get a cap on the age group. While reaching out to the patients, usually the caretaker or a senior family member would respond first. This was because people were highly paranoid about any type of tracking done by the government. People feared they’d be taken away, isolated in a shelter for 14 days and zero contact with their family members. It took some time for them to get comfortable, they would even speak with us. For the longest time, people assumed we would take them away from their families and dump them in isolation wards. The fear of being robbed from the comfort of their houses, made it challenging for them to even be honest with me. I remember talking to a 100-year-old woman. Most of the people I spoke to were anywhere from 38-65 years of age.
Y: You spoke about the hesitance from the other end & we understood that this was an experience first of its kind. From what they told you, what were the fears of these patients?
K: There was a sharp distinction between the timeline of lockdown and how people reacted to it. From March to June, the buzz around the media, lack of awareness among the citizens about the strain of the virus in India made everyone assume that COVID-19 was fatal. The World Health Organisation (WHO), Scientists, Researchers reported that a vaccine would require at least a year.
People interpreted this as fatal so according to them, anyone who contracted the disease was deemed to be dead soon and worse, they’d be responsible for the death of others too.
Secondly, the social reaction towards these patients, I’ll elaborate on this in a while.
Y: Definitely. As an average citizen, our first concern was to survive and make it out of the lockdown alive. But coming back to the patients, where were they quarantined? Can you help us understand their quarantine experience in government centres, hospitals?
K: In the early days of COVID, anyone who tested positive had to get themself admitted to the Government Hospital, or COVID Shelter for 14 days. This continued until we reached the breaking point. People now understood the situation better. The fear and misinformation about COVID were less. Doctors established treatment protocols better and patients were asked to stay at their homes. Volunteers were asked to track the living conditions of the patients. During my time as a volunteer, I spoke to people from different shelters. The treatment – medical & mental differed from one shelter to another. In these shelters, the treatment and care included food and medicines wherein the quality of food differed from shelter to shelter. I think it is very necessary to understand that all my answers are strictly based on my experience as a volunteer in the city of Chennai, Tamilnadu. In a much larger sense, every state had its own style of COVID management. Medicines on the other hand were provided at timely intervals. The doctors empathised with the patients, but their support was restricted as they couldn’t talk to them, it was all on the other side of the door.
Y: During their time in the hospital, how did they react to you reaching out to them? You wanted to offer support. Were people in the right headspace to respond to you? How did they project that on to you?
K: My answer to this question contains two actual incidents.
Incident 1: A 53-year-old man started yelling at me when I reached out to him. The reason for his outburst was a hideous rumour about his death which shook his entire neighbourhood and his family members. His immediate motive was to flee the quarantine centre and go home. He could have, maybe, called them but in the heat of the moment, he blurted it out to me out of frustration. He even told me that he’d kill himself if they didn’t let him go home.
Incident 2: A lady who tested positive was treated hideously by her neighbours. Her neighbours warned her family to not get out, sealed the area outside their house’s door and spilt loads of bleaching powder outside her house. She wasn’t bothered about the virus but the reaction of her neighbours completely shattered her. Both these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg about the way COVID patients were mentally harassed by society.
Y: How did you deal with such situations? What was the outcome?
K: It took me a month to understand that all the lashing out frustration came from a valid headspace, internally. I wasn’t prepared for what was coming my way. My days started with being yelled at mercilessly by a stranger whom I was genuinely just trying to help. Any comment or remark seemed like a personal attack on me. Once I stopped taking it personally and understood that my role was more like a “Punchbag” or a random anonymous friend, my job became easier. I did my research on mental health, learnt about the kind of language and tone I must use, resources to help them out, etc.
Y: What happened after this? Did you follow up with the patients you spoke with once?
K: We did weekly follow up calls with patients who were older than 50 years. We did follow up with patients who showed more concerning symptoms.
Y: How did you feel about this? How did this experience affect your mental health?
K: I decided to volunteer thinking I’d be able to help people. It took some time for me to understand and come to terms that some things that are beyond my control. At the back of my head, I constantly kept thinking about the patients. “How could I be of more help to them?” kept running at the back of my head.
It was depressing until I figured a way to stay emotionally detached from it and merely focus on being a listener.
Y: Do you feel it was justifiable for them to act like that?
K: I completely empathise with the patients. For example, two members of a family of 6 got affected, there are young children and old members present in the family. The ones who got affected were shifted to a quarantine centre leaving the rest of the family members clueless. Friends & Relatives were sceptical about helping them. Stepping out of their homes meant exposing themselves to the virus. In such situations, people had zero tolerance toward me. As a representative of the government, I received all sorts of backlash. People who were upset with the government and its handling of the issue would scream on top of their lungs at me, a volunteer who was supposed to extend mental support to affected citizens.
Y: Did you receive the help you needed to deal with such incidents from your superiors?
K: Yes, every day I had to report and update my superiors regarding the number of people I contacted, resource requirements and tips to help me talk to people better.
Y: What was the role of society in this?
K: Deeply saddening. The social treatment was too brutal. The Pandemic was an open invitation for social discrimination. People shamed and scrutinised others outside their family members under the label of “safety and precautions”. Women who work as domestic-help were asked to change into clothes provided by their employers and enter their house after taking a shower.
Couples over the age of 60, whose children lived outside India had no contact whatsoever with their parents. They were trapped inside their homes alone with nobody to help them, while their children spoke to them from behind their laptop screen. There was a culture of demonising Covid patients into agents spreading the disease wherein families would notify Covid patient-names as words of cautions. This was slowly turning out to be another version of untouchability. However, with times that attitude slowly changed, as people started noticing that Covid Patients were not all dead and that it just had the capacity to spread faster than the manageable capacity of the Healthcare Infrastructure of any place.
A small thought and choice to show kindness would have prevented these avalanche reactions within our Society. Impulsively reacting repulsively in the first few months was understandable but using that as an excuse to emotionally and mentally abuse patients can never be justified. But in a country where doctors and healthcare workers were bullied into evacuating their houses, this wasn’t surprising.
Y: That was quite a roller coaster ride. If you had to define this experience in one sentence, what would it be?
K: Life-changing. It helped me understand how the same thing was perceived in so many ways by different people. I learnt about the vast spectrum of perspectives of people on the pandemic. The same people I spoke to helped me. One day I got a call from one of the patients I spoke with earlier. She called me and thanked me for reaching out to her during such unprecedented times. She asked how I was doing, and wanted to know if she could help me in any way possible. Earlier, I spoke about the man who was frustrated and yelled at me because his entire neighbourhood presumed him dead. After that call, I lost all my motivation to continue volunteering. I mustered the courage to make the final call for the day. I called to ask him certain questions, he patiently responded to all of them. He was very kind, sensible and calm. Later in the call, he told me about the death of his wife. She had passed the previous week after contracting Covid. I was shaken by the courage this man displayed. He asked me if I was doing okay first. He offered me his blessing and told me to keep up the good work. Needless to say, I was in tears after that call. People like him was the reason I kept going.
Y: Thank you for extending your support and care to random strangers who were in need of it and thank you for taking your time in replying to our questions. Yosee team definitely appreciates your kindness and support.
K: Thank you for hearing me out.
Many times, we forget that there is another human at the end of the phone. Be it a tele-caller, a phone-banker, a volunteer who randomly tries to extend their care and warmth as their contribution to society. Perhaps, every one of us should think that that human on the other end of the phone, is either doing their job staring at a screen or is voluntarily reaching out to us, only to listen to our frustrations. Just so that we cope better. This was an effort to understand the ground reality of how the pandemic has affected every individual. It isn’t about the disease in itself, it’s beyond that. All of us were locked in our houses seeing how an invisible microbe was breaking down systems we thought were strongest. Karpagam’s story is proof of leading by example. Maybe next time when someone reaches out to you, take a minute to be compassionate and ask a simple ‘How are you?’. Because kindness isn’t about doing something for others because they can’t, it’s doing something for them because you can.