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West Bengal's friendship club of covid-19 fighters

Those who survived the virus and bonded over the experience are fighting the stigma that comes with testing positive

Covid Care Network volunteers regularly perform street plays to raise awareness

Sanjukta Mitra counts herself lucky to have got bed No.1 at the Kolkata Medical College and Hospital’s covid-19 ward. For that’s how she met her covid “bondhu”: the occupant of bed No.2, Bashudeb Dey. After spending the first two days lying on her bed, staring quietly at the white ceiling and chanting prayers, Mitra decided she didn’t want to spend her “final days waiting for the end”. “I thought I wouldn’t survive corona. But I knew if I spoke to someone I would feel better. Luckily, Dey saab was there.”

Dey was one of 12 covid-19-positive patients in the ward. Since Mitra and he were on adjoining beds, they started talking about their families, their lives before children and grandchildren, the songs they liked, the dishes they longed for, the gods they believed in, and what they would do once they were back home. “We even meditated and, sometimes, exercised together,” recalls Dey, 68, a civil lawyer. “Those moments kept us hopeful,” adds Mitra, 65, a homemaker.

Five months have passed. They stay in touch on WhatsApp—a bond of friendship forged within the confines of a room while fighting a lonely battle against an invisible virus.

This is what Mitra always highlights—the importance of a social support system—when she participates in awareness campaigns, virtually or live, across Kolkata organised by the Covid Care Network, a community of over 1,400 people in West Bengal that is fighting the stigma of covid-19 and addressing the needs and fears of patients and their families with the help of people who have fought the disease. “I want to remind people again and again that yes, the loneliness and fear of covid are real, but we are all fighting it—together,” she says.

TOGETHER, WE FIGHT

The idea of the Covid Care Network came in mid-May, when Mitra’s daughter, Madhabilata, spoke to her over a doctor’s phone while she was recovering from the virus. “Throughout those eight minutes of our conversation (over a video call), I could hear other patients say they also wanted to talk to me. That’s when it hit me how lonely it could get inside,” says Madhabilata, a model and a mountaineer.

Across the city, Satyarup Siddhanta was dealing with his own crisis at home. His uncle was showing symptoms of covid-19 but wasn’t ready to get himself tested. “My aunt kept saying he fell sick because he drank cold water,” laughs Siddhanta, also a mountaineer. After considerable effort, he convinced his uncle to take the test. The next big task was figuring out who would drive him to the testing centre. “Nobody wanted to take the risk. His house was away from ours, so I couldn’t take him.” Siddhanta then called Madhabilata, a friend, for help.

The experience she had had of dealing with her mother’s covid-19 diagnosis became a guide for Siddhanta. Finally, a volunteer from a government hospital came home to test his uncle, who was hospitalised after he tested positive.

The entire series of events helped give shape to the network, which has spread across 10 districts, including Kolkata and South 24 Parganas, since its launch on 1 July. Founded by seven people, including Madhabilata and Siddhanta, the self-funded network has a diverse set of people—from doctors, medical students and lawyers to mountaineers, ASHA and social workers, and homemakers—who offer medical, physical, emotional, even financial, assistance to those in need. “Fifty per cent of the covid battle is fought in the hospital; the rest in the community,” says Siddhanta. “It has been seven months (since the pandemic began). There’s still so much stigma, so much panic and fear. Many people are still refusing to get tested. We are trying to bring forward people who have already fought the virus in the hope it will make some dent. People need to realise covid is not equal to death.”

To address general queries, they have set up a 24x7 helpline, attended to by over 300 medical students in turns. They also have an ambulance, given by the state authorities.

Somdatta Satpathi, a doctor who takes helpline calls for two days at a time, says: “Initially, it used to be very overwhelming. The network got some 50,000 calls in the first two months. Most would call to ask about how they can get themselves tested. One question I got a lot was: ‘I have tested positive. Am I going to die?’ It was draining,” she says. Now, she receives 40-50 calls a day. “Maybe people have become more aware now? Though I am not sure. Did you see how many people were walking happily without masks during (Durga) pujo?”

When Durga Puja festivities were in full swing last weekend, West Bengal saw a sudden spike in covid-19 cases. Hoping to ward this off, the network had organised small bike rallies of three-eight people across the 10 districts, covering 5-25km, earlier in the week to remind people to stay indoors. In some places, they also hosted street plays to drive the message home. “It is not possible for our government to fight this pandemic alone. Our medical infrastructure is already too stressed,” says Madhabilata.

Sanjukta Mitra believes that in order to put up a strong fight against the virus, people need to “physically, not socially, distance ourselves. We need to be each other’s bondhu. Only then can we win.”



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