Sunday, April 11, 2021

Saree-clad Superhero Army

 "Not all superheros wear capes. Many wear sarees."

The line stuck in my head the moment I heard it.

ASHA workers, Anganwadi workers and other field level volunteers have emerged as true heros in the pandemic.

When I heard that two districts in Andhra Pradesh were running out of vaccine doses, my first thought was for my friend's octogenarian father. His second dose of CoviShield was due, and I hoped he would be able to get it.

Unfortunately, my fears were well founded. 

In the heat of an Indian summer, he travelled all the way to the PHC where he'd taken his first shot, only to be told that they had run out of doses.

My friend was worried- what if he didn't get the second dose at all?

"Don't worry about Tatagaru", the ASHA worker assured my friend. "I'll make sure he gets his second shot."

Two days later, she kept her promise. Through informal networks she came to know a PHC had received vaccine doses, and she took him there and got him vaccinated.

ASHA workers have a long list of duties to perform. They are constantly busy conducting awareness campaigns, monitoring expectant and new mothers, ensuring care to patients and dealing with emergencies.

Ensuring that residents receive COVID vaccination isn't one of them.

Yet, many of the ASHA workers have voluntarily taken on the burden of creating awareness, mobilizing people and taking them to PHCs to get them vaccinated.

They also end up tracking the second dose much more effectively than COWIN.

This is nothing new for them.

ASHA workers played a significant role in the success of the Polio Eradication campaign. 

People in rural areas trust ASHA workers. That can be leveraged to conduct community level vaccination drives to ensure optimal coverage.

Will it add to their existing burden? Not if the number of ASHA workers is increased. Right now, there is one ASHA worker for every 1,000 population (less if the habitations are small). That ratio can be improved by adding more ASHA workers. At this moment, there is more than enough work for all of them, and even after full vaccination, there will continue to be new things that come up to keep the additional ASHA workers engaged.

We do have a Superhero Army in Sarees. Why not use them?

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Enforcing the Mask Mandate

 A year after the WHO advisory to wear masks to prevent transmission, people still don't mask up. It is frustrating to see people brazenly flout the masking mandate. And one of the solutions has been to enforce by pretending to beat up people who are not masked. But is that what should be done?

However tempting it may seem, beating someone up for not wearing a mask is not the way to enforce mask wearing. Using violence to enforce anything is cannot be justified. Because once you normalize it, it will almost certainly be used to target the most vulnerable.

The vegetable vendor sitting on the pavement who pulls down her mask for 30 seconds to sip water gets beaten up.

The lady sipping a Starbucks venti is allowed to move maskless.

The driver who pulls down his mask because he is getting baked in the car park is beaten up.

His employer attends a meeting with 15 other maskless individuals in an air conditioned Board Room.

The orthopedically challenged person who's mask slips while he is trying to maneuver her wheelchair over a too narrow ramp is harassed.

The dude checking out his reflection on a storefront is ignored.

We are an inequitable society. It is the most vulnerable who are targeted.

Adhering to the mask mandate is important. But it is equally important not to give another reason to attack the marginalized.

"Sama, dama, dada, bheda", is the advice our ancestors give us. Though we had a year to communicate it, we have still not done a good job. Let us first exhaust the first two- awareness and incentives, before we think of moving to the next.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Both Sides of an Argument

 “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

― Carl Sagan

We like to play "fair". We like to look at both sides of an argument. We try to understand what the "other side" says.

But sometimes there is no "other side".

How can there be an "other side" when a thirsty child is trashed for drinking water, or a couple is lynched for falling in love?

By seeking the "other side", we are giving legitimacy to brutality.

If we were truly 'liberal' we would condemn without hesitation.

Attempting to give equal space to all arguments on a particular forum is also unfair.

When the Church argued that both Creation and Evolution should be taught in schools, it was dismissed because Evolution doesn't get equal time in Sunday schools.

There are countless similar examples where you cannot push for both sides having equal time in a particular space.

No, I am not saying that either side is always right, and the other side is always wrong. All I am saying is that we need to be able to use our discretion in deciding when to argue for "the other side" and when not to.

No festival is intrinsically bad

 There was a time when I loved Holi, and everything associated with it.

The smell of gulal made with multani mitti. Petrichor, I came to know it was called. One whiff still takes me to paradise.

Dahi vada and malpua. After a morning of playing Holi, and the rest of the day succumbing to the fatigue, the only thing that could draw you out of bed was the thought of stuffing yourself silly with dahi vada and malpua.

Thankfully, those dishes haven't been spoilt for me.

Palash, flame of the forest.

The solitary tree growing by a stream. 

The experiments with extracting dye to use as a colour.

The excitement of seeing the golden hue. The disappointment when it didn't stick.

The sight of palash still fills my heart with joy.

The festival itself is not intrinsically bad, though many are petrified of it. It symbolizes the advent of spring. It speaks of joyous beginnings, of new life.

And yet, people spoil festivals for you. By choosing to move far away from what the festival is meant to be.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

A free pass to harass

 When I was a kid, Holi was fun. We would run around the colony with our pichkaris, ambushing people and squirting coloured water on them. The colours were mostly gulal, which washed off easily.

When we were slightly older, we graduated to chemical colours, which were slightly harder to scrub off. But the fun of emptying buckets of water (or having it emptied on you) made up for the inconvenience.

And then, we entered adolescence.

One of us matured faster than the rest and became object of everyone's passion. To curry favour with his friends, one from our gang invited them over to play Holi in our apartment block.

That year, Holi changed for me.

It was the first time I had someone pull my shirt and shove colour into it. It was the first time someone held me tight by the waist while languidly smearing colour on my arms. It was the first time I was forced to put colour on someone I didn't know.

For the first time, angry tears mixed with soap while I scrubbed off the top layer of epidermis. I felt dirty long after I the last molecule of colour was washed off.

I didn't know it then, but it was the last time I would play Holi.

The next year, I gave the annual exams as an excuse for not playing Holi. It reinforced my reputation as a nerd, but I couldn't care. I did not want to put myself through that experience ever again.

At some stage, the excuse changed from "I have my exams" to "I have sensitive skin". But I could neither bring myself to play Holi, nor to talk about the experience.

Like every other victim of sexual harassment, I made excuses. Maybe I was over reacting. Maybe I misunderstood the signals and unwittingly led them on. Maybe…..

But it is not the victim's fault. Though she blames herself.

Despite having extremely supportive parents, I could never bring myself to report it either. Had he heard, my father would have let those boys have it. My mother would have ensured their mothers punished them.

I would certainly have been believed. Yet, I didn't speak out.

I just stopped playing Holi.

I hid away when people came to call me.

I made excuses to not play.

I never stepped out of home during those days.

I stayed away from public spaces.

And I am not the only one who does so.

Holi does give an opportunity for men to harass women. They hide behind the veil of "social sanction" and "culture", and unleash their sexual frustration on unwilling women.

This is certainly not what the festival was supposed to be. But sadly, that is what it has become.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

That which we speak not of

[An occasional series profiling women I know who have risen over challenges to become the inspiring women that they now are. Each of them has lessons for us]

She is a professionally qualified, financially independent woman who got trapped in a physically and mentally abusive relationship. The abuse got worse after she had a child, and she even left the home for a few months and then returned. But when she could take the abuse no longer, she walked out with her 13 month old daughter, and to keep herself and her daughter safe, disappeared from public view.

Even 20 years back, it was not easy to ‘disappear’. She had no social media profile, and didn’t attend functions where there was even the faintest likelihood that mutual friends may be present. She kept a very low profile professionally, even though it had an adverse impact on her career. For seven years, she managed to stay under the radar. Then, after her mother passed away, someone called her pretending to be from her mother’s bank, got her address and outed her. The long distance abuse began again.

Their mutual friends chose not to believe her stories of abuse, because to do so would mean they would have to stake a stand against him. What they did not realize was that by choosing to look away, they were enabling the abuser, which indirectly made them guilty too.

Even worse, she was ostracized by mutual friends, because her presence reminded them that they had chosen silence. For them, it was a choice between what was easy and what was right, and they chose what is easy.

Today, the toddler with whom she fled is a young woman who is ready to take on life in her own terms. She has carved out her own niche professionally. After decades of playing the part of the dignified man in public, her abuser has unraveled in public a few times and people are now seeing through the suave mask he has on. We can say that the story has a positive end.

Why then am I talking about the story today?

I am talking about it, because this forces us to confront our stereotypes. We are quick to typeset victims of domestic abuse as meek women who are emotionally and financially dependent on their partners. But even strong and independent women could be victims, and even for them it is not always easy to walk out of an abusive relationship.

I am talking about it, because when we hear of cases like this, out natural tendency is to look away. We do not want to get involved in matters like this. What we do not realize is that our silence empowers the perpetrator. Knowing he will not be called out, he continues his abusive behavior, and the victim is left without support. It is necessary for each of us to take a stand against domestic violence. Till each of us supporting the victim in public and calling out the perpetrator, this is not going to go away.

The Deaths we do not count

 In the last twelve months, my octogenarian mother has lost at least 12 people she knows well. While, at her age, she is used to losing people, this toll is certainly greater than usual.

“Well, there is a pandemic raging”, we could say, but only one of them had tested positive for COVID, though COVID was indirectly responsible for all their deaths.

A lady in her mid 90s who hadn’t stepped outside her home since March, contracted COVID from her caregiver. After a week in the ICU, she passed away, and though all three of her children were in the same city, none of them was pay their respects to her before she was cremated.

She was the only one to officially have COVID mentioned as the cause of death.

But there were many others who succumbed to the pandemic.

A lady in her mid 80s had Parkinson’s. Both her children were settled abroad and would take turns to visit. Her son was supposed to come, when Lockdown was announced. Within a week she was gone.

Neither child got to hold her hand before she was cremated.

Ten days later, her husband had a cardiac arrest. The retirement home he was in called a doctor, but dithered about taking him to a hospital. He did not survive the second cardiac arrest which came a few hours later.

Was it a cardiac arrest or heartbreak, we will never know.

Another lady lived in a sprawling bungalow with a caregiver, a housekeeper and a driver. She developed bed sores, but her brother decided it wasn’t safe to take her to a hospital. It spread, and she died of gangrene.

Yet another indirect casualty.

Others were denied (or delayed) hospital care, in a bid to keep them “safe” from the Coronavirus.

Do we even acknowledge those deaths?

How many more indirect deaths will COVID claim?


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