By Somashree Choudhury
The disaster that India saw in the last few months of the onset of the second wave have been the darkest phases of India in the 21st century. While the country has seen a wide variety of disasters (natural or manmade), the second wave came and shattered the existing order. Not just the public health system but due to lockdown, we have been cut off physically from what we do in “public”- work, leisure, education etc.
As all these shifted into our homes, we found ourselves unprepared. We fell into a crisis we saw coming but never expected. While responses from governments were frugal, people took initiative. Making efficient use of social media, people formed networks for COVID related resources. There have been brilliant instances of digital leadership and door to door volunteer networks that dived in to provide best possible solutions or assistance for emergencies.
The doctors who saved people’s lives, the ambulance driver who proactively searched for a bed for your patient, the friend who comforted you and the co-worker who volunteered to help out, every action has one thing in common: initiative.
This article is a result of conversations with colleagues who reflected on how we saw leadership around us and within ourselves during the onset of the second wave of Covid-19. Here is what I found:
Information is power- this power has saved lives during the shortage of medical resources during the second wave. The youth engaged in voluntary online services to support families of COVID patients looking for hospital beds, oxygen, essential drugs, food etc showed the world that difficult situations can be overcome by innovative solutions. Volunteers manually updated leads for resources every other hour often at the expense of their physical and mental health. My colleague Sucharita reflected. “Being a leader in times of crisis is to do something beyond themselves”.
Being a leader at a time of crisis is not just about will. The will can only materialize when strategic thinking can be applied to the situation. The problem has to be identified, estimated, resources have to be accumulated, teams have to be mobilised and only then a quick resolution is possible. Panchali Kar has been using strategic thinking as a tool to approach organizational problems and to work across volunteer groups to mobilise COVID resources. They believe, “Crisis management is not a charity. The vision of why and how must be very clear.”
A big part of resource mobilization is to find and locate these resources. This means you might have to scourge your contacts for resource persons, connect with friends and family you have fallen out of touch with. Pratibha Lal, our colleague based in Chattisgarh shared her experience “ I never thought I would be able to find help in my own network. I had started doing this out of desperation but when I was able to find beds and ambulances using personal and professional networks, I realised that leadership is about accepting the situation and actively considering multiple possibilities. Without an open mind to take a leap, a problem cannot be solved.
Reaching out as an act of solidarity
At a time when taking care of one’s own self seems difficult, supporting others in crisis seems like an impossible task. During this period, reaching out to their friends, family and colleagues in isolation- provided a sense of security. A casual text from a colleague or a “How are you feeling today?” from our senior manager Pompi Banerjee, made us feel a little less alone. Team members who kept WhatsApp groups alive after work hours with memes, jokes and music helped us feign a sense of normalcy in our lives. Some even volunteered to help out when others’ were feeling too overwhelmed to work.
Another instance of solidarity was seen in Shramik Adhikar Aur Nyay Sangathan (SAANS) a leaders’ collective based in Chattisgarh. A fellow member had lost his father to COVID and as a result was increasingly isolating himself to deal with his father’s death. The other members of the group gave him time to process but eventually grew worried about their companion. They all went to visit him and reassured him that he was not alone. This act of solidarity resulted in him trying to reconnect with his usual self.
As Sanjog undertook COVID Awareness campaigns with rural youth leaders, social workers and field coordinators, many in the organization felt inspired. Madhurima Sanyal, who was part of the COVID Awareness team, noted that since this is a positive engagement- with discussions regarding prevention, protection and care, there was a sense of hope that COVID can and will be in our control. Participants of these campaigns who are mostly rural youth leaders, community organizers and frontline workers welcomed this initiative as verified COVID related information came as a relief during these times.
Elections and Community Leadership
Sampriti Mukherjee, who works closely with a West Bengal based survivor collective, found that the West Bengal Assembly election had affected the lives of the leaders of the Utthan Survivor’s Council. Some leaders were voting for the first time and were very excited to be able to do so. She found that these young women, who are community leaders against trafficking, domestic violence and child marriage have a strong will for political decision making.
Leadership and initiative taking may not be the common response for everyone. That is why initiative takers are crucial to the management of crisis situations. Doctors, nurses, and volunteers provide the most important services at this point.
But what are the leadership actions that remain invisible to us?
a) Local coordinators of volunteer groups- the youth in the neighborhood who go door to door, the ones who leave the food or take patients to the hospital. While people with social media clout help spread information far and wide, the local volunteer is the person behind the “resolved” message.
b) Social workers- Those who work in communities on social issues, whose nature of work is keeping a close relationship with communities and have to be in the field and outdoor settings all the time. They are providing support to these communities on an everyday basis on COVID related emergencies, awareness building and any other emergency as needed.
c) Rural resource providers- Our social media networks run dry when an SOS comes from a rural location needing oxygen at reasonable rates. Although leads did come up from the social media networks, they were not at a rate that could be afforded by the patient party. Ultimately, local networks found leads from a rural resource provider who provided the oxygen cylinder at an affordable cost.
d) Positive steps taken by local self government duty bearers- While there is widespread misinformation and lack of awareness regarding COVID, one village in S 24 Parganas showed exemplary leadership. The Gram Panchayat spread awareness regarding protective measures, use of marks, sanitizer etc. Then they organised vaccination drives and ensured the first dose of vaccine for everyone above the age of 45.
Why do these leadership actions remain invisible?
The massive impact of COVID in rural India has received very less attention and screen time. This not only speaks about the privilege of the demography that consumes content on an everyday basis, but also makes us think of the limited impact of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in rural communities. The only platform that seems to have made any impact in rural communities is WhatsApp. The massive spread of misinformation on COVID-19 and electoral propaganda through this application was well demonstrated in the past few months. Hence, there was limited opportunity of documenting and disseminating the leadership actions of local coordinators, social workers, and resource providers in rural communities. Undoubtedly, they must be known by the communities themselves as they have been providing essential services. However, sadly they remained rather invisible to the public at large.
Panchali observes, that despite the massive efforts of student, youth and citizens’ networks, the fact still remains that these efforts are not aimed at changing the status quo. Those who already have social media clout, gained more and following. For example, many Tollywood stars used their social media handles to volunteer for COVID resources. But ground level workers of volunteer groups did not receive the same amount of applause and admiration as with celebrities. Rural communities without access to healthcare were further pushed into a health care emergency but there was hardly any engagement on mainstream or social media regarding the issue.
Leaders in extraordinary times are not messiahs. They are ordinary people who are trying to make sense of the crisis at hand. These leadership actions are borne out of trying in dire circumstances. Many think of leaders as those who can remain unmoved and unaffected by a crisis. A “strong” leader is one who can keep their emotions and sentiments aside and power through. But this toxic positivity cannot be a solution to the ongoing crisis. As Sampriti said “Leaders do not hesitate to expose their vulnerability. They move according to the demands of the situation.”
For the leaders of social impact organizations in times of crisis during the pandemic, we have some advice that worked for us:
1. Using your experiences and building a plan for the third wave.
2. Investing in the mental wellbeing of beneficiaries and employees.
3. Ensuring open communication with stakeholders, beneficiaries and employees.
4. Knowing the limits of your team and resources.
5. Strengthening social media processes as a lot of work can be done through this medium.
6. Engaging in team activities to relieve employees from stress and anxiety.