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A Shining Light in a Dark Season

By Atul Tandon

As we all learn to navigate the health, economic, and social changes caused by COVID-19, I find myself thinking often of our clients and neighbors living in extreme poverty. The reality for those living on less than $2 a day is unimaginable—without access to clean water and sanitation, already limited economic opportunities, and notably absent healthcare infrastructure, Opportunity clients are bracing for disaster. This is especially true in my home country of India, where the government-mandated lockdown has either stranded migrant workers, trapped people in extremely densely populated neighborhoods, or left isolated rural communities to figure things out on their own.

It is in the midst of this incredibly difficult environment that women like Meera Devi are stepping up to serve those around them and stand on the front lines.

Meera is a Community Health Facilitator (CHF) trained by Healing Fields, one of our partners in Uttar Pradesh, India. As COVID-19 spread around the world, Meera began galvanizing multiple village stakeholders to set up rural quarantine centers.

As early as February, Meera started sharing awareness tips approved by the World Health Organization to 1,500 families; she engaged them in hand-washing demonstrations, taught them to recognize symptoms, and trained them in protocols of social distancing. When several villages—including her own—started witnessing the influx of large groups of returnee migrants, they were already in a state of preparedness.

The migrants were disheveled, ill, and malnourished. They had traveled for up to seven days, returning from urban hubs, mostly on foot with no access to food or water. Their employers (largely construction) had asked them to leave with little or no provision in hand. The more empathetic employers had bought them bicycles so they could cross multiple states to reach their homes. In light of the new focus on COVID-19, the influx of people caused some local residents to panic and refuse to let these travelers enter the villages.

Meera swung into double action. She went from door-to-door, counselling the most upset families, alleviating their fears and misconceptions around the spread of the coronavirus. She then connected with the gram panchayat (village council), influential local families, ration distributors, and the village health system. With guidance from the Healing Fields leadership team, she organized them into a task force with one goal: setting up village-level quarantine centers for the returnee migrants.

The villages of India will overcome the pandemic and lockdown. Our villages have more endurance, collaboration, and unity. Here, we don't think of individual profits, but collective well-being. We will collectively take care of each other."

Meera Devi

The panchayat reopened schools so they could be used as quarantine centers. Villagers cleaned these buildings and provided beds, mattresses, and any supplies they could donate. As the migrants settled into these safe centers, dry rations came in as contribution from the government. Meera, with the support of Healing Fields, ensured everyone had access to basic proteins such as milk and eggs. "The villages of India will overcome the pandemic and lockdown," Meera says. "Our villages have more endurance, collaboration, and unity. Here, we don't think of individual profits, but collective well-being. We will collectively take care of each other."

Her words, symbolic and inspiring, have been playing out in a much less abstract way. When the panchayat did not have resources, families started cooking hot meals for these returned villagers. In one community, a family decided to take care of all the meals of all 20 people, through the quarantine period. Today, doctors are making regular visits to check the health of migrants. While their physical health is returning, their mental health is fragile. To no one's surprise—Meera is making efforts to organize their counselling.

Meera is a shining example of one of Opportunity's partners coming alongside the most vulnerable in this season. Her bravery and willingness to serve is an inspiration—and a reminder of our ongoing commitment to our clients and their communities.

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