The mental health toll of volunteering at the frontlines of COVID-19 crisis

 thehindu.com  05/23/2020 12:28:56 

When all this is over, I might need some counselling. The things we have seen& It has been traumatising, says Ahtesham Al Haque. The Delhi-resident doesnt recall a single day since March 24, that he sat down to relax, content.

As the socio-economic aspect of the COVID-19 crisis revealed itself, and the first wave of migrants started walking back home in the absence of any transport, shelter or security, Ahtesham and his friends, have been one of the many citizen action groups that emerged in response. These volunteers work with community kitchens and other NGOs and collectives, to deliver rations, cooked meals, and health kits to those unable to access them.

Over a phone call from Jamia Nagar, Ahtesham, an independent political strategist, says he is just returning from distributing rations to families in Shaheen Bagh. Like him, many other volunteers have day jobs, and yet, there is hardly anything part-time about volunteering.

Hamesha ek bechaini hoti hai (There is always some anxiety), says Siddhant Mhatre, a volunteer with Yuva, in Panvel, Navi Mumbai. The 22-year-old has been spending his days packing and handing out snacks of biscuits and chiwda (a flattened rice snack) to migrants on their journey home, on the Mumbai-Nashik road, and manning a helpline for daily wage labourers.

Its not like you can finish your volunteer work, and just forget about it; you take it home with you at night, he says. Even now I can see those two kids in front of my eyes. He is referring to an incident from a couple of days ago, when they went distributing rations. We ran out of stock, but there were these two kids who climbed up on our truck, asking for food. We had to turn them away after just giving them some water.

Siddhant is plagued by the worry that these were just two kids who could come up to them and ask. Theres no knowing how many there are who have not been able to. We go out and do what we can, we finish our work, but what happens after that? he wonders aloud.

The scale of it

The anxiety of feeling helpless against the whole scale of the pandemic is an overarching issue among those volunteering. Says Ahtesham, Say I go out and deliver ration once. I cant come back and think I have done something good. Five minutes later, there will be another call.

There have been days he and his friends have delivered, until 2 am, and 80 to 90 bags of ration daily. At some point, you think, this is not the type of stuff citizens are supposed to do, he says, adding that it exposes much larger systemic flaws. Given they arent part of an NGO where it could be more systematic, the exhaustion is greater.

Twenty-eight-year-old educator, Abdul Raheem, managed to get home to Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, in the first week of March. Previously involved in helping the homeless during Delhis winter, he was able to predict the challenges an extended lockdown could throw up. He, along with three others, started RAHI (Rampur Against Hunger and Infection). They collect funds and distribute rations, soap, washing powder, and health kits, including sanitary napkins on demand.

We had initially collected around 20,000. But it turned out to be nothing, the way it got used up so fast! We were quite anxious about how to proceed  we had just set out to help a little. Adding to the stress of looking for donors and not being able to say no to people in need, in the first week of RAHI, Abdul had heated arguments with his family, related to his safety. They are parents. They are bound to worry, he says, understandingly.

Taking a break

Ahtesham refuses to call up his friends and discuss what he sees in his volunteer work. Everyone has their own problems. With the situation we are in, I dont think that would be right of me.

There are friends on social media, of course  but social media itself can be overstimulating. I actually stay away from Twitter and Instagram as much as possible. You have one section of people showing off their culinary skills, another section conducting webinars, and right next to it are images of walking migrants. Its too disturbing.

Of them all, it is the online activism with no on-ground aid that bothers him the most. I get that you share news to draw more attention to it, yes. But that will take time, things wont change overnight because of your posts, they still need food right now. Even if you cant donate money, you can still help out on the ground, he says.

The frustration is evident in his voice, but he calms down soon. Thats why to relax, the first thing I do after going back home is take a shower, and sit with a book in my hand. For two hours, I focus just on that and nothing else. Its the only time when I am not thinking about what is going on outside.

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