Even a war comes to an end - but not Covid

An aid worker carries food parcels

Kantha Prasad, a volunteer with Action Aid, delivers lunch to a family recovering from coronavirus. Image: Ritesh Uttamchandani/ActionAid

Aid workers from DEC charities in India have talked movingly about how many of their own staff and family members have succumbed to Covid but, despite their grief, they are pressing ahead with their urgent work. 

Many describe it like being caught up in a hurricane but – unlike the natural disasters they are used to dealing with – they do not know when it will end. 

Imtiaz Ahmed, Mission Head at Age International’s local partner HelpAge, says: “It’s much bigger than any natural disaster that I have worked on. With a natural disaster it happens and then you deal with it; with Covid it’s like a storm that’s raging and running out of control, getting bigger and bigger. And you have no idea how big it’s going to get.” 

Susmita Guha, Senior Manager for the West Bengal State Programme of Save the Children, says the 100-year-old organisation has done so much humanitarian response in the past – but this is an unparalleled situation. Having to coordinate plans away from where they will be delivered because of lockdowns is particularly difficult but some work has to be done in person. 

She adds: “We have responded to war, cyclone, earthquake, I mean, all other natural or man-made calamities, but this one, where you cannot be physically present in a situation, you cannot be on ground, is extremely challenging.  

“And if you are present, you are actually risking your own life and risking your team member’s life. So that's a confusing and difficult situation.”   

The description of a never-ending disaster has been echoed by a doctor in Kolkata interviewed by the BBC. Dr Kuldip Batabyal told India correspondent Yogita Limaye: “I don’t know how long we can continue like this. Even a war comes to an end but here it’s wave after wave.” 

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Personal grief 

Many DEC charity aid workers have talked of balancing their important work while caring for family. Guha said: “Both of my selves – my personal and my professional selves – are trying to manage the situation. I'm experiencing loss in my personal life, my friends, my neighbours, my family, and we are experiencing death. And that's scary, actually, very, very scary.” 

“The other side of me is my professional self; I am leading the entire state programmes of West Bengal for Save the Children, the response planning, listening to what people need, reaching out to government, to the situation analysis, requirement analysis, and trying to reach out to the most marginalised who need the support. So, it's a crazy busy situation now, and sometimes tiring, frustrating and overwhelming.”  

At Oxfam India, Pankaj Anand says his 'typical' day has changed so completely as the pandemic turns everything upside down. 

He says: “Everyone in Oxfam India is directly or indirectly affected in some way – with friends or family members that have died or gone through a very difficult time in hospital.    

“Every day I do three things. First, I look for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders or oxygen concentrators for a friend or relative. Second, I do my professional work. And third, in the evening I do Zoom prayer meetings for those that have passed away - in my neighbourhood, extended family or old friends. It is so overwhelming. People are finding it difficult to cope with the many things they need to do on a daily basis.” 

Medical staff care for a patient in a ward in a sports centre

Medical staff care for a patient in a 100-bed facility set up by CARE in cooperation with the local government in Bihar, India. Image: Srinivas Panicker/CARE

Imtiaz Ahmed agrees. “From the moment I switch on my laptop early in the morning, it’s full-on. Coordinating with all our teams and our partners. And I am seriously worried for my family. So far, none of my immediate family has been affected. But many of my school and college friends have died. Every day, I hear of someone new who has been affected with the disease or has died from it.”   

Sandeep Chachra, Chief Executive of ActionAid Association India, estimates that around the country about 30 of his colleagues (out of 200 staff) have tested positive, and very sadly one has passed away. “They are mostly at home recovering with their families, but in five cases they are in hospital and one colleague, a young man, died a few weeks ago. He had a very virulent strain and despite ICU hospitalisation could not be saved. It’s been a tough time and it creates panic.”  

Oxfam India’s Pankah Anand said speed of assistance is vital now. “Please be in solidarity with India, please help and support in whatever way you can, in the shortest possible time. Time is of the essence. Indians are looking to the global community for help, support and solidarity in standing by us.”