What is the stuff heroes are made of? If Norman Schwarzkopf, the United States army general who led the coalition forces in the 1990 Gulf war, is to be believed, “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who go into battle.” As the Great Lockdown enters its 7th week and over half a billion Indians still remain confined to their homes, there is what Mahatma Gandhi described as “a small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in the mission” who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make our lives safe, secure and ensure that our daily needs are being met. And most of them are ordinary people from different walks of life who are displaying remarkable courage in putting their own lives at risk for the well-being of others.
It is now time we paid this army of do-gooders a tribute by recognising their heroic efforts for which they seek neither reward nor applause. Most of us did step out into our balconies, clapped our hands and clanged thalis in appreciation of the work they are doing when Prime Minister Narendra Modi thoughtfully asked us to do so before the Lockdown. We lit diyas to lift the gloom that has descended on us ever since the coronavirus pandemic turned our world upside down. The armed forces came together on May 3 on behalf of the nation to express their solidarity with these warriors as air force helicopters showered petals on hospitals, fighter jets conducted a flypast, army personnel laid wreaths on police memorials and the navy and Coast Guard lined up warships in formation on the Arabian Sea. In doing so, the forces acknowledged them as compatriots of a different kind fighting the enemy in a war that in magnitude now rivals the havoc wreaked by World War II, without a single bullet being fired.
Across the country, thousands of doctors, nurses and medical staff are putting their lives on the line daily for us, making personal sacrifices that we mostly take for granted. The magnitude of the health operation currently on is mindboggling. To be prepared for the worst, the central and state governments have ramped up the facilities to provide treatment for patients, especially dedicated Covid beds and ICU units. From barely 25,000 dedicated Covid beds with oxygen facilities when the lockdown began on March 25, it has gone up to 97,000 now, while the number of ICUs has doubled from 15,000 to 32,000. Testing capabilities for the virus have been increased from 5,000 tests daily to 75,000 now. It is, without doubt, an achievement to be lauded and to ask why we had to wait for a crisis of this magnitude to strengthen our medical services.
Even Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) like gloves, visors and suits that initially had to be imported is now being manufactured both by public and private sector units, making the country, almost overnight, the second-largest PPE producer in the world. So, while we stayed confined in the comfort of our houses during the lockdown, a mammoth exercise, unseen and mostly unsung, was under way to boost the nation’s health preparedness to meet the worst-case scenario the pandemic could throw up. C.K. Mishra, secretary, Union environment and forests department, and head of the COVID-19 empowered group for medical preparedness, says, “Ultimately, our aim is to prevent death at any cost. The lockdown not only helped contain the spread of the virus, it also bought us time to build up our health services to meet any exigency. For me, serving the nation at this hour has been a moment of immense satisfaction.”
The medical personnel on the front line of the battle against the pandemic are exactly the kind of saviours we need in this hour of corona crisis. Like Dr J.C. Passey, medical superintendent at Delhi’s LNJP Hospital, which at one point had in its care 450 Covid-stricken patients, the highest for a single institution in the capital. “Doctors know suffering and death, they understand the risks of the profession,” he says, with stoic calm. “But Covid has shaken us all. Sometimes, the conditions worsen when you least expect it.” He and his team of 800-odd doctors are working round the clock, saving lives, knowing that they themselves are at high risk of contracting the illness.
Unlike other diseases, treating Covid patients also means they risk spreading the virus to their families and endanger them as well. In the past month and a half, most of them have been forced to live away from their families in government-provided accommodation at the city’s hotels, their only contact with their near and dear ones being conversations on phone or through video apps. In Nashik, Vaishali Ghule, a nurse in a government hospital, says that though her house is just eight kilometres away, she has been unable to go and meet her husband and two sons for over a month now. But her best moments are when patients who have been cured say goodbye to her with folded hands and tears in their eyes. It makes her forget all her personal difficulties and makes the effort worth it, she says.
And it is not just the medical fraternity that has sprung to the nation’s service. There is another silent army at work, providing us essential services, whether food or medicine, and becoming our lifelines in the Covid-infected universe. When the lockdown was imposed on March 24, the entire supply chain of the country ground to a halt despite exemptions for vehicles ferrying essential goods across states. That changed five days later, when the central government formed an empowered group of Union secretaries and experts on March 29 to unclog the system, get down to work, cut red tape and address granular issues to get the wheels of transport moving. As on May 5, the number of trucks moving daily on the country’s roads was 585,000, of which 97,000 were transporting packaged foods and some 50,000 items of vital medical supplies. The drivers manning these vehicles are as much on the front lines of the Covid effort, going about their job and ignoring the risks to their lives and their families.
The civil aviation sector has chipped in too, with national carrier Air India helping to evacuate stranded Indians abroad, again at considerable risk to their own lives as well as of their crew members. The armed forces and private airlines have also stepped in to contribute to the government’s relief efforts, offering to move urgent cargo. In Bhopal, pilots with the Madhya Pradesh government flew state aircraft to ferry blood samples of suspected Covid patients to laboratories in other states for testing. One of the pilots, Captain Vishwanath Rai, quarantined himself for weeks to avoid infecting his elderly parents. His fellow pilot, Capt. Majid Akhtar, says they have to wear PPE suits even in the cockpit, dealing both with the oppressive heat as well as the nausea it generates. But, as he puts it, “It has to be done, it is our time to give back to society.” As Parameswaran Iyer, secretary, Union water and sanitation department, and head of the empowered group for logistics, points out, “There is a whole range of people involved in logistics, whether pilots, truck or engine drivers, postmen delivering medicines, support staff like loaders and mechanics, dispensers such as store owners, chemists and PDS employees, policemen enforcing law and order or garbage collectors, all ordinary people who have emerged as our real heroes.”
Then there are others who are using their wealth and corporate expertise to arrange food for migrant workers and their families, especially in cities where they might have lost their jobs. One such effort, by three Bengaluru-based businessmen cum friends, K. Ganesh, Juggy Marwaha and Venkat Narayana, is the Feed-my-city initiative, which has seen them partner with NGOs across the country. They have so far provided food to 2.8 million people in Noida, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. To do so, they have pooled their collective management expertise and corporate best practices to ensure quality and efficient delivery of supplies. The quality check includes personally tasting the food packets before they are sent. R. Ramaraj, co-founder of Sify and the NGO Chennai Angels, who oversees the Chennai operation that has grown to 92 centres, says, “This has been a great learning. I know I will never take my comforts for granted again.”
It is indeed inspiring to see the nation put its best foot forward in this hour of crisis, and come together as “Vande Bharat”. Recorded in the following pages are a range of such touching examples across the country, compiled by our staffers. With half of India still in partial or full lockdown and with many of us continuing to isolate ourselves at home, it is comforting to know that there are millions out there who have our backs, sans fear or motive. There are no profit graphs to measure their success; after all, what value can you put to deeds that bring succour to men or save their lives? The greatest joy, as these saviours have shown us, is not in the taking but in the giving and sharing. The least we can do is say a big thank you to them.