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  • Writer's pictureAyyappan Ramachandran

Saving with a smile: Story of a COVID volunteer

This article is also published by The Quint here.

Meet Naresh - the 'focus volunteer' assigned to our home when my wife and I tested positive.

Over the past 15 days, he used to climb to our doorstep daily, hand over 2 boxes of lunch picked up from my mother who lives in the next street, enquire about our health and ask if we require anything else. Finally, before leaving, he gives a thumbs up and brightens with the most genuine smile I have ever seen (it is obvious even under the mask, his eyes crinkle).

As our quarantine came to a close and the government poster slapped on the face of our house was torn away, and importantly, as I felt myself coming back to (the old) normal, I decided to invite Naresh home and have a chat.

Modest or shy - you cannot guess. He sat at the edge of the sofa and answered all my curious questions with economic use of words and gestures, never once adjusting his mask.

He used to manage transportation at an IT firm. As COVID snatched away his job, as he saw suffering all around him, he decided to take the plunge when one of his friends suggested the government's volunteer program.

Weren't you afraid of working amidst sick people?

'I was afraid initially. Soon, simply by following safety measures and taking precautions, I could see the positive impact my job had. That encouraged me to continue.'

What about your family? 'I have elders staying with me. They were very concerned when I first informed them. Now they have adjusted to the idea.'

So what exactly does he do at his job? He and his fellow volunteers start work at 7 am (that's when I wake up on most days). They have a brief meeting and then drive away to the 10 streets assigned to each. They visit each COVID-positive house, enquire after the patients' well-being and... leave with a smile. I cannot imagine how someone can smile so genuinely each time! I am briefly reminded of my wedding reception when Sruthi and I had to fake a smile for over 4 hours and hope the camera wouldn't catch us, all while our cheeks ached.

Around midday, they have to dash off a daily report to their manager. And then continue visiting houses until 4 pm, when they turn home and rush to the bathroom for a hot bath before meeting any family member.

That's all? Not exactly; someone might ring him even in the night asking if he could buy them this or that. He obliges, though it is not a part of his job description.

So much travel! He remembers a stretch of 14 days when he had to drive to T.Nagar from Besant Nagar to get lunch for one old man who decided to trust only his daughter's cooking and not order from the restaurants nearby. How does he manage the fuel expenses? From his own pocket, he tells me casually. He has to make do with the 11k that the government pays him as monthly salary.

I wipe away a trickle of sweat. It's peak summer in Chennai. How does he run here and there in this weather? He nods away, as if to say I am making too much of a light matter. What refreshes him most is people thanking him. 'Manasala vazhtharanga,' he says. (I exchange thanks with so many people at work, none so powerful.)

Is everyone polite to him then? Not everyone, some are rude. They ask him why he visits them every day and disturbs when they are already sick. How does he respond to that? He doesn't. He smiles and walks away.

'Some patients fear they are dying. They plead to be taken to a hospital, they even shout at us in desperation. At such times, it is easy to talk back, shout over their voice, but they are already agitated, afraid. The best is to listen to them and then calm them down, quote their own words where necessary, and silently walk away.'

Wow! Most of us never appreciate the power of (genuine) listening. Some of us are trained to listen through 'leadership workshops'. Here is a man before me who figured the approach and uses it to so effectively.

Any thoughts for people from all this volunteering experience? 'We must live together as one society, one family. We must at least respect, if not care for, the well-being of our neighbours, hawkers and every person we pass on our way. I see many COVID patients going for morning walks. I talk to them about pausing their routine for a while, but they brush me off.'

I am surprised by how mature our thoughts can become by simply interacting with and observing people around us.

Anything crazy in all these months? 'Sure, I met one person who used to ask me to buy stuff for him. Every time I hand over and leave his flat, he would call me again for another item. And then add "Ungalala mudiyum", I will never forget that!'

Boosting the morale of a passionate volunteer? Trust our people to floor us even in their most dire situation.

It's time for Naresh to leave. He picks up his bag, reminds us to drink hot water, and is almost off when I suddenly remember. As I reach for my camera, I wonder what pose he should be in.

Well, that's easy!


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