Slum children receive chocolate cookies and soap from a volunteer (R) of an NGO in New Delhi
Slum children receive chocolate cookies and soap from a volunteer (R) of an NGO in New Delhi

COVID-19 is a black swan event. It has stretched healthcare systems, resources, and tested people's resolve. With over 29 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 363,000 deaths from the pandemic, India has been impacted severely. The second wave of COVID-19 was particularly devastating, leading to large numbers of deaths.

Amidst all this doom and gloom, people's mental health has been a big casualty. It has suffered as many are depressed, staring at an uncertain future, living in the constant fear of breaching COVID-don'ts and contracting the disease. The pandemic has reversed years of progress made in the critical human welfare domains of education, healthcare, sanitation, and hygiene.

But there is hope, hope that stems from examples of people who are fighting back with vigor and lifting others up with them. The cancellation of exams has led to anxiety and stress among students and their parents about their future. Their morale has taken a beating and motivation is down. In this scenario, civil society organizations have taken it upon themselves to address the situation. One such organization is Quest Alliance, a not-for profit organization which equips young people with 21st century skills like communication, negotiation, critical thinking, collaboration, and self-awareness. Quest deploys several self-learning tools for learners to help them continuously up-skill and prepare for the future of work.

Its app, QuestApp, which hosts interactive content in a gamified platform and can also be deployed in offline settings, is one example of a self-learning tool that is helping youth, particularly those in marginalized environments, fight the effects of the pandemic by ensuring an interrupted learning journey. The app has had over 190,000 learners till date and continues to onboard easy-to-use content for learners from middle schools up to ITIs and VTIs, helping them effectively continue learning, reduce anxiety about education and protect their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Another example of a non-profit organization working with people on the grass roots to alleviate mental stress and anxiety is that of The/Nudge Foundation. The Foundation is working with ultra-poor communities across districts of Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. The/Nudge Foundation is helping ultra-poor women access the government's welfare schemes, it is protecting their livelihoods and helping them deal with the mental stress of the grave uncertainties of the time – ensuring food security.

Similarly, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation, another impact stream of The/Nudge Foundation, runs an incubator for non-profit startups. It is playing an active role in helping address mental health woes faced by startup founders. From meeting funders’ tall expectations to seeking fresh funding for projects in the current economic environment, from handling the pressure of meeting stringent impact targets to dealing with personal challenges during the second wave, entrepreneurs have had a lot to deal with during the pandemic, and The/Nudge Foundation is lending a helping hand.

A big source of mental stress for women in India is the lack of access to affordable menstrual hygiene products. Only around 36 percent of India's menstruating women use sanitary napkins. With the pandemic pushing millions of Indians into poverty, this access has been hampered no end.

Local, ground up, people-driven initiatives can make a serious difference to the wellbeing of communities. This is because they are driven from the grass roots, are steeped in a keen understanding of local issues and offer customized solutions.

Take the case of Pinky Kumari, a resident of Mishroli village in Uttar Pradesh. Kumari took the responsibility of solving problems concerning menstrual hygiene management and girl-child education in her area.

Pinky and her friends designed safe and inexpensive menstrual products by hand-making reusable cloth sanitary pads. They are supplying these to girls in their village. They started work during the COVID-19 lockdown in India and are now preventing instances of school drop-out among adolescent girls due to menstruation. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Pinky and her friends, girl pupils in her village stay healthy and can continue learning, alleviating a great deal of mental agony for them and their families. The movement has caught steam and is seeing increased participation from girls in the area. This is the difference that nuanced understanding of issues at the ground level can make, helping devise true people’s movements that strive for the benefit and upliftment of entire communities.

Another example of a well-designed direct intervention is that of some of the work being implemented by Smile Foundation. The non-governmental organization runs a pan-India tele-counselling initiative under its Health Cannot Wait campaign. Apart from dispelling vaccine hesitancy, Smile Foundation's tele-counsellors help address people's mental health issues by giving them a patient hearing and offering viable solutions to their concerns.

These are but a few examples of how Indians are helping one another deal with crises and rise together in these desperate times. Collective will has triumphed over the pandemic in a manifestation of courage, resolve and true spirit of humanity. Indians are helping their countrymen survive the pandemic by focusing on collective good.

(Dr Aatish Parashar is Professor, Dean & Head, Department of Mass communication & Media, Central University of South Bihar)

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