The pandemic has taken a huge toll on human life and activity this year. Even as it raged on, forcing us to take shelter inside our homes, some people stepped up and helped others at grave personal risk. #TnlSalutes these COVID heroes and their initiatives with these stories, and accolades to come at the readers’ choice India’s Best Awards 2020. By Team T+L
THE UNSCRIPTED STAR: Sonu Sood, Actor
Until March this year, Sonu Sood was best known for his portrayal of villainous characters. But his many social welfare initiatives amid the COVID-19 crisis have made people hail him as a real-life hero. It all started with the actor offering rooms of his Juhu hotel to healthcare workers who were risking infection on the front line and facing social ostracisation. While the lockdown slowed down the contagion’s spread, its abrupt implementation brought troubles of its own. Thousands of migrant workers got stuck in cities like Mumbai without a source of income or food. Sood stepped in to feed almost 45,000 people daily with his initiative, Shakti Annadanam. He also arranged for inter-state buses and all the requisite government permissions to send migrant workers to their homes. He admits that he doesn’t even know if he contracted COVID-19 in the process since he was spending 18-20 hours a day on the ﬁeld. The biggest challenge he faced, Sood says, is the lack of contacts and training for this undertaking. “I didn’t know how to accomplish the task, but there was a passion to work till the last migrant reached his native place.” It was this initiative that brought him a ﬂood of requests. Sood went on to arrange ﬂights to bring back 200 Odia girls from Kerala, 180 Assamese migrants from Mumbai, and many medical students stuck in Kyrgyzstan. He also anticipated the problems that the migrant workers would face in the future—that of eventually returning to paid jobs in the city. So, he launched the Pravasi Rojgar website and app, which would link job seekers with employers and also equip the former with requisite skills. “We’ve got over 10 lakh job applications already and have delivered about 1.5 lakh jobs,” Sood reveals. Many of us displayed empathy with the needy on social media, but few ventured out of their safety bubbles to help. Sonu Sood never once took the easy road, and for that, he is a true hero.
SCIENCE WITH A VISION: Hasmukh Rawal, Managing Director, Mylab Discovery Solutions
When COVID-19 cases ﬁrst surged in India, the biggest hurdle to containing the virus was testing. Imported testing kits were expensive and limited. This is where the Pune-based molecular diagnostics company Mylab Discovery Solutions Pvt Ltd came to the rescue. Mylab developed the ﬁrst indigenous RT-PCR test kits for COVID-19—going from concept to product in six weeks. The Mylab PathoDetect COVID-19 Qualitative PCR kit was then priced at INR1,200, one-fourth of the existing price. The company also scaled up rapidly. “When we started—near the end of March—our capacity was 10,000 kits a day. By April end, we were making almost two lakh kits a day,” reveals Hasmukh Rawal, MD, Mylab. In July, it became the ﬁrst Indian company to receive commercial approval from ICMR for its antigen rapid testing kit for COVID-19. Rawal says that they were able to rise to the challenge only because they had all the resources in place for years. In fact, Mylab launched Compact XL, a sample-to-PCR ready system, in September 2020, but it had been in the works for over three years. The machine automates most of the testing process and shrinks a 1,500-square-foot lab to 100 square feet, replaces four experts with one technician, and eliminates manual error, Rawal claims. “We believe every country should be ready with some sort of automation that allows you to get results in real-time for an epidemic or pandemic,” he adds.
WARRIOR IN THE SKY: Captain Sumer Singh, Senior First Officer, Air India
When the world came to a sudden standstill, it was unnerving for Captain Sumer Singh to see airports cloaked in an eerie silence. But six months and 25 repatriation flights later, the Air India pilot has now made peace with this new form of chaos. “Everyone, including I, took time to get used to the situation. The pandemic led to a completely different flying experience. Flying during this period for the Vande Bharat Mission was weighed down with long working hours, the discomfort of masks, anxiety, and health risks, but the experience was also elevating due to the sense of a greater purpose,” says Singh. Over the course of 200 days, Singh, along with his team, managed to bring back over 2,000 Indians stranded in different countries. Most landings were met with cheers and applause, but the most heart-touching moment he experienced was when a seven-year-old asked for his autograph and called him a superhero for bringing her back home to her father. The situation wasn’t all roses, though. Even with rigorous training, a strict safety protocol, and three COVID-19 tests for each flight, 55 pilots from his airline alone have tested positive so far. There were times when they had to leave people behind to ensure there weren’t any carriers on-board. “The virus doesn’t know race, colour, gender, or nationality. It’s time we realise how fragile and co-dependent all of our lives are,” reflects Singh. “Follow the rules, do not become complacent. Have gratitude and embrace humanity. Being appreciative of the good things around us is the need of the hour,” Singh concludes.
THE ARMOURERS: Vaibhav Chhabra (Founder & Chief Learning Officer) and Richa Shrivastava Chhabra (Managing Partner), Maker’s Asylum
From furniture to drones to a mobile recycling lab, amazing things have come out of Maker’s Asylum, born seven years ago as a tool-sharing space among like-minded people. In March, as the first lockdown was announced, the team isolated themselves at their Mumbai workshop. “We thought we’d come up with online courses. But then, we saw a demand for face shield designs in the open-source ecosystem,” says founder Vaibhav Chhabra. As they made prototypes and shared them online for reviews, they got constructive feedback and unexpected demands from hospitals and healthcare workers. Thus, the M-19 initiative—of making 10,000 face shields—was born. But raw materials and transportation were huge challenges in a lockdown. “By roping in local labs in 42 locations, we were able to scale up fast,” reveals Richa. Eventually, over one million face shields were made by a community of 300 volunteers in 49 days. Their youngest volunteer was a 12-year-old, for whom these makers are nothing less than superheroes.
CATERING TO THE NEEDY: Kaushik Raju, Coo, Atria Group
Foreseeing the impact of the lockdown on the ﬁnancially underprivileged, the Atria Group launched the Atria Foundation. The agenda was clear: to take care of the most basic need for survival—food. On March 28, around 10,000 free meals were distributed among the needy in Bengaluru. COO Kaushik Raju, aided by the expertise of his father and the group’s chairman and managing director, Sunder Raju, spearheaded the initiative. “We started out with our own hotel’s [Radisson Blue Atria Bengaluru] kitchen, which became our central kitchen as we gradually partnered with restaurants that were out of operation and had the manpower to spare,” shares Kaushik. Additionally, the foundation also launched an app that allowed people to volunteer. Soon, with 14 remote kitchens, 300 employees, a bunch of local NGOs, and over 100 distribution associates, the foundation was serving 1.5 lakh free meals every day until the last lockdown. They’ve distributed a whopping 60,21,000 free meals—in 255 locations of Bengaluru. “When we started running out of resources, we reached out to apartments and societies. So the programme is still running, even if on a smaller scale,” reveals Kaushik.
ON THE FRONT LINE: Sudipto De, Senior Resident, ESI Model Hospital
Traveller, food blogger, surgeon—Sudipto De dons many hats. When the pandemic hit India, he was on the front line as a medical professional. De says that the biggest challenge was, and still is, to deal with the immense mental pressure of it. “Meeting loved ones helps a patient’s recovery, and this virus takes away that option. It isn’t easy to deal with patients who are longing to see their families,” he says. At ESI Model Hospital, each surgeon is working 12-hour shifts (four days a week). Every 15 days, they are shifted to the COVID-19 department. When De had to go into self-isolation due to symptoms (he tested negative), he turned to his blogs for sanity. “The pandemic gave me time to introspect. It gave me time to think and be grateful for everything I have,” he says.
THE MIND HEALERS: Rashi Vidyasagar, Director, The Alternative Story
The pandemic’s effects on our body can be tested and treated, but it has also wreaked less visible havoc on our minds. A team of 20 at The Alternative Story has been working hard to combat this mental health crisis—with a series of webinars and digital counselling sessions. The start-up kept the price of its weekend webinars on COVID-19 as low as `10 since the objective was to reach as many people as possible. “We wanted to help people realise that all these overwhelming emotions they were feeling—the anxiety, the feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, the disturbed sleep cycle—were normal and being experienced by us all,” explains Rashi Vidyasagar, director, The Alternative Story. The firm has always been inclined towards technology-assisted and geographically independent therapies, and unsurprisingly, there has been a rise in the number of requests since March 2020. They even had to hire five additional counsellors to match the demand. “The ever-increasing number of [COVID-19] cases and the lack of strict guidelines are making people more anxious by the day. The only answer to this is the community coming together—all of us helping each other out and providing support,” says Vidyasagar. The organisation is set to launch COVID support groups soon and is training people to become mental health allies. It believes that while the situation may be abnormal, seeking help and helping out should be considered normal.
THE HANDS THAT FEED THE HUNGRY: Aarushi Batra, Co-Founder, The Robin Hood Army
With an army of over 60,000 ‘robins’ or volunteers, The Robin Hood Army was distributing three lakh meals across 180 cities in 10 countries every week, before the pandemic came along. During the lockdown, excess food from restaurant partners and big weddings—their biggest source—was ruled out. But donations from individuals and corporates helped them feed over 23.2 million people in six weeks. Co-founder Aarushi Batra says, “As soon as the lockdown was announced, we had to stop all drives. In the next couple of weeks, some robins who had access to safety gear and local government permissions helped people on the streets.” Meanwhile, we conducted safety webinars for the volunteers and prepared for two months before launching the 45-day #Mission30M on July 1. As 50,000 robins worked on conducting research from their desks, over 10,000 carried out distribution in a safe, sanitised, and responsible way across 10 countries. “It isn’t just about handing out food packets; we sit and chat with the elders, we play with the kids, we share their joys and sorrows. So, apart from making sure all our robins wore masks and gloves (and PPE kits at some places), we maintained a roster for contact tracing, checked temperatures, and allowed volunteers only within the age group of 18-35—with no underlying symptoms and no elderly family members at home.” The organisation also launched the #SeniorPatrol campaign to provide essentials like food and medicine to senior citizens in 107 cities.
FRATERNITY OF HOPE: Anurag Katriar, President, National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI)
When restaurants shut shop in March, a large community of people got severely affected. The restaurant industry is one of the biggest employers of human capital in India. “We employ 7.3 million people directly. With so many fixed expenses and no money coming in, the easiest option was to shut shop,” explains Anurag Katriar, President, NRAI. The fraternity took several measures to tackle the challenge. They raised capital to retire a number of people and chalked out a financial strategy that would sustain the rest of their employees. In an initiative called Relief for Distressed Workers, NRAI partnered with PepsiCo India to provide month-long ration kits for a family of five to about 5,500 distressed restaurant workers—equivalent to serving nearly 2.5 million meals. “We realise that businesses have an uncertain future. But our primary concern was the crisis at the humanitarian level,” adds Katriar.
ONE-MAN ARMY: Aatifur Rahman, Lawyer, Assam
A few days after the country went into lockdown, Aatifur Rahman got a visitor. “The man said his relatives were stuck in Delhi-NCR and needed food,” says the 27-year-old human rights lawyer from Barpeta, Assam. So, Rahman arranged rations for the family. “Then, I began getting calls to help Assamese migrant families stuck in other states,” he says. Soon, Rahman was ensuring daily rations to nearly 2,800 migrant labourers. In April, when these migrants began fleeing cities, Rahman was once again in the thick of the action. He coordinated with non-profit organisations and local administration to arrange flights for 300 people. “I helped illiterate workers fill out forms at the border, and made sure they had supplies at the quarantine centre,” Rahman says. He is now raising funds to provide livelihood avenues to those who have returned to Assam.