Rekha is a volunteer at a Domiciliary Care Centre for asymptomatic COVID patients at Punnapra in Alappuzha in Kerala. One day, she was serving food for the inmates, when one of them complained of breathlessness.
The volunteers at the centre called for an ambulance, but they were told it would take about 10 minutes to reach. Rekha and her colleague Aswin decided not to wait. They quickly put up the PPE kits and drove the patient to a nearby hospital on a scooter.
Doctors realized the patient’s condition was deteriorating and quickly put him on oxygen. In half an hour, his condition improved and he stabilized.
While this might have been a routine job for Rekha and Aswin, they were not prepared for the media scrutiny that followed. A video footage of the two volunteers hurriedly carrying the patient on a scooter went viral. Some television channels reported that a COVID patient was taken from the First Line Treatment Centre to another facility by “sanitation workers” because of insufficient medical care. It was also reported that the patient was shifted on a two-wheeler because no ambulance was available, which was interpreted as a serious lapse on part of the government.
The details, however, started trickling in later and it became evident that the two volunteers were not from a First Line Treatment Centre, but a Domiciliary Care Centre. Media persons too corrected information about ambulance and sanitation workers.
Rekha, 22, is a member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the youth wing of Kerala’s ruling CPI(M). She is one of the lakhs of volunteers who are helping COVID patients with food, medicines, other necessities and logistics.
It all began in 2018 when heavy rain-triggered floods inundated several parts of Kerala, displacing thousands from their homes. Many people came forward to help and formed small groups and worked out rescue operations.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, with a mission to tap this overwhelming response from the people during floods, decided to formalise it and launched the ‘Social Volunteer Force’.
Soon, lakhs joined the force. As on May 17, 3,78,077 volunteers have registered with the Social Volunteer Force, of which, 88,857 are women. All the women are in the age group of 18 to 40. Once they join, they are directed to the ward level committees or respective police stations to carry out a range of duties like providing food and medicine to COVID patients, taking care of the elderly, assisting the police in implementing lockdown rules and cremating bodies among others.
Sreekant, an engineer who assists the police now, recalls his days during the 2018 floods. “I was working day and night while rescuing people. After the rains stopped and water level dropped, we provided food to people in relief camps for weeks,” he said.
As a police volunteer, Sreekant, besides 20 others, helps cops monitor COVID positive people in quarantine in Kottayam. “We visit those who tested positive and are living in home isolation. They are given medicines or food and connected with the local health team. I cover 10-15 houses a day. We also assist the police in implementing lockdown rules,” he says.
There are 24,816 police volunteers across 481 police stations in Kerala. A total of 3,456 volunteers were engaged with the fire and rescue service after giving them special training.
Rekha, who took a critical COVID patient on her two-wheeler, had also received special training from the Fire and Rescue Service. “While rescuing people during floods, I realised that we need special skills and training for such operations. Hence, I decided to join the ‘Fire and Rescue Civil Design’, a special wing to train civilians. We were given training to handle accidents such as building collapse and fire besides natural disasters such as floods and cyclones,” says Rekha.
There is a Rapid Response Team in every municipal body with 20-25 volunteers each. While they usually respond to emergencies, their activities have increased during the pandemic, especially at places where lockdown is in force or where there is a need for urgent distribution of food, groceries or medicines. The volunteers also check on COVID patients at homes and Domiciliary Care Centres.
Vishnu Sankar of Padiyur in Thrissur district along with a team of volunteers distributes food to truck drivers and other passengers on the highway. “We distribute around 50 food packets a day. We had done this last year too when lockdown was announced,” says Vishnu, who is also an activist of All India Youth Federation, the youth wing of CPI.
The food packets distributed are often sponsored at the local level and prepared at volunteers’ homes.
The social volunteer force is a concept that Kerala has borrowed from countries like Singapore and Thailand, says Amith, education and communication expert with the government of Kerala.
Life and volunteering
Volunteers like Sreekant balance livelihood and volunteering. “I run a construction firm of my own. During the first and second waves, I mostly spent my time volunteering,” says Sreekant.
Mir Mohemmad Ali, state coordinator of Social Volunteer Force, said the volunteers are obviously not paid.
These volunteers are also members of some political, cultural and professional organisations. Sreekant is the Kottayam district president of ‘Registered Engineers Association’, a professional organisation of engineers and supervisors.
Political organisations like DYFI, AIYF, local arts and sports clubs, libraries and Kudumbasree units provide a number of volunteers who are on the field attending to the needs of COVID patients, elderly and bed-ridden people and even for performing cremation of those who died of COVID when the family members and relatives of the deceased are scared to do it.
Recently, pictures of Manjusha, a native of Vellayani in Thiruvananthapuram and a bank employee, were seen on Facebook helping in the cremation of a person who died of COVID.
“This was an old woman living alone. She was admitted to the Medical College and Hospital where she died. I was informed about it by someone from the hospital and so I rushed in,” says Manjusha, state convenor of Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI).
Manjusha remembers the Ockhi Cyclone of 2017 as quite devastating. “I witnessed lives being uprooted by the cyclone. Our organisation, BEFI, was into relief activities in the coastal areas. We distributed rice and other food material to people living in relief camps,” she said.
Volunteers like Manjusha and Rekha are often asked if they are not reluctant to cremate strangers. Both the women volunteers answered what meant: “Everyone is the same at the face of death. We have no option but to do it when relatives and even family members are scared to touch the body of a person who died of a pandemic.”
Harish Kumar, a businessman at Vazhoor in Kottayam and a volunteer with Fire and Rescue Service, has been volunteering even before the flood. “I am a member of Blood Donors Kerala (an organisation that has members across the state and even in Gulf countries). My organisation played a pivotal role in flood relief and rescue operations,” he says.
Harish recollects the days and nights he spent under torrential rain in country boats with fishermen rescuing people held up in water-logged houses.
Harish now works with the Police and Fire Service on call, at times attending to the requirement of a COVID patient in First Line Treatment Centres, sometimes to carry someone critical to the hospital, and at times cremating the dead.
What fascinates Harish about volunteering is that there is no class difference among them. “People from all walks of life are doing the same work—daily wage workers, businessmen, teachers, civil servants and all. We have learned great lessons from the flood. We can deal with any calamity if there is a collective will,” says Harish.