Coronavirus: Can one woman make kindness catch on in India?

By Geeta Pandey - BBC News, Delhi
Caremongers poster

With India under lockdown and social distancing being advised to deal with the threat of the coronavirus, an online collective of "Caremongers" is reaching out to help the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

It started last week when Mahita Nagaraj, a digital marketing professional and single mum, received a call from a close friend in the UK requesting her to help arrange some medicines for her "very elderly parents".

Within hours, she heard from another friend living in the US with a similar question: can you ensure that my parents have provisions for the month?

Ms Nagaraj, who lives in the southern city of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), says that set her thinking about other friends whose elderly parents didn't have anyone to call upon.

So, she posted a message on Facebook asking people to get in touch if they needed help.

The response she got was "overwhelming". People reached out to her from all over India and, surprisingly, most who got in touch said they wanted to help out too.

And thus was born Caremongers India - a Facebook group, asking people to "stop scaremongering and start caremongering" - on 17 March.

"There is so much scaremongering in the current scenario," says Ms Nagaraj. "We are trying to address the feeling of helplessness in the people. We are telling people to stop spreading fear and panic, and instead spread love."

Mahita Nagaraj set up Caremongers India after her friends called her to seek help

Ms Nagaraj says she learnt about caremongering from a BBC article from Canada. The concept actually started in Toronto to help vulnerable people, but within days it spread to cover almost all of Canada with tens of thousands signing up.

Reports of altruism have come in from other parts of the world too. Britons are delivering soup to the elderly, in the US neighbours are helping those quarantined with buying groceries and one Long Island mother, infected with the virus, wrote about a neighbour who cooked a lasagne and left it outside her door.

Along with all the fear and panic caused by the coronavirus, the pandemic has also seen kindness go viral across the globe, with neighbours and complete strangers pitching in to help.

In India too, caremongering took off from the word go - in the first 24 hours, the Facebook group had 200 members. A week later, it has become a pan-India network with more than 6,500 volunteers.

Ms Nagaraj says she realised that on Facebook, most people were getting in touch to offer help, but only a few were asking for help. So, on Friday night, she launched a helpline number and since then, "it's gone crazy".

Caremongers India offers help to those who are most at risk of health complications due to the virus like the elderly, the disabled, those with pre-existing health conditions and anyone with an infant under a year.

In less than a week, Ms Nagaraj says, she has received thousands of calls and messages and although a large number of them have been to verify whether the number is genuine, she has also taken hundreds of requests for assistance.

Listed on the Caremongers India page are countless examples of assistance sought and provided; and testimonials and messages of gratitude.

Besides those calling in from within India, Ms Nagaraj has been fielding dozens of calls from people across the globe seeking help for their elderly parents and grandparents.

"When people give their requirement and address, we match the requester with the closest volunteer," she explains.

So last Saturday, when Amit Joshi, a resident of an upscale apartment block in the Delhi suburb of Noida, called the helpline, he was connected to Caremonger Madhavi Juneja, who also lives in Noida.

"We woke up to the news that our apartment complex was under lockdown," Mr Joshi told me.

A resident had tested positive for the coronavirus and Mr Joshi was informed that they would not be allowed to leave home for a week.

"Police had put up barricades outside on the road and our complex was swamped with disaster management teams and health officials. Everything around us was shuttered. There was complete panic," he says.

Mr Joshi, who lives with his wife and elderly parents, says his biggest worry was how to get essentials like bread and milk.

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And when he received a random WhatsApp forward from a colleague about Caremongers India, he decided to call them.

A few hours later, Ms Juneja, a psychotherapist and life coach, turned up at the gate of Mr Joshi's housing society and handed over the supplies to him.

"I wore a mask and took my bottle of hand sanitiser and drove to his complex to carry out the delivery," she said.

"Because the street was barricaded, I parked my car and then walked. If I had left it outside, someone else could have taken it. After I handed over the package to him, I sanitised my hands and got back into my car."

Mr Joshi says, "In trying times like these, to have people selflessly reaching out to those in need has strengthened my belief in humanity."

Ms Nagaraj says it's "so heartening" to see that so many people want to help.

"Every request we receive is very special when we fulfil it. When a daughter calls to say her dad who lives alone requires provisions, we work hard to ensure he gets it."

Ms Nagaraj says caremongering has taken over life and even her home.

"It's not easy to answer 450 calls a day," she says, "but when you help others, you go to bed thinking you haven't wasted your day and that's good enough for me."