India’s latest surge – News from Kolkata

We have all watched India’s second COVID wave crash across the continent, exposing the terrible chasm between rich and poor, the deficiencies of the health system there and the wonderful power of human beings to reach out and help one another when disaster strikes.

Amna is over 60 and runs a small grocery stall on the roadside to support her large extended family. She also sells snacks in the evening to supplement her income. But business is very slow and the family is hungry. She is receiving emergency food parcels from Tiljala SHED.

As the casualties rose exponentially all we could do was look on – I was begging the staff at Tiljala SHED to stay at home, arrange vaccines and keep themselves and their families safe. We couldn’t have our staff going into the field and inadvertently infecting our beneficiaries (or indeed being infected by them). Shafkat, who runs Tiljala SHED, was busy tapping up all his contacts to raise funds to be able to feed our beneficiaries at the same time as using his own personal network to ensure that oxygen bottles, oxygen concentrators and hospital beds were found for the neediest. Meanwhile in the slums, squatter camps and shanty towns, where once again all daily labourers had to down tools and stay at home, money and food were becoming scarcer and scarcer.

Conducting a community survey.

A handful of our staff ventured out to survey the levels of need, to find out how much illness in our beneficiary areas but perhaps more importantly how much hunger. Food parcels were distributed to the most vulnerable families, elderly and disabled. Masks, sanitiser and health advice were also dispensed.

Meanwhile, the rate of vaccination remains low. Some of our staff are vaccinated but not all. Almost no one in the communities we serve is vaccinated. We do not know the levels of virus. No one is being tested. At this time of year as the dry hot summer gives way to the monsoon it is common to find high levels of fever and other diseases. So no one really knows whether they are sick with malaria, dengue fever or with COVID.  There is also rising crime in the communities. Of course there is: everyone is hungry.


I am especially concerned about the youngsters who have decided, often against their families’ wishes and certainly against community norms, to remain in education. We support them through our evening classes and have supplied smartphones and remote classes for them. But their families are hungry so we are prioritising this group for food rations. I see these youngsters as the hope for the whole community – they are the first in their families and in the community to remain at school. I believe that one of these children will be Topsia’s first ever college student. And more will follow…

But there is good news too. We are not aware of much severe COVID in our communities – we don’t really know why but I’m guessing it is significant that this is a relatively young population (life expectancy is not high in places like this) which by necessity lives a well-ventilated life in the open air, queuing for water, washing clothes, cooking and trimming chappals.

So once again, it is lockdown and the attendant poverty and hunger which affects our communities. The schools are closed once again and I fear for the children’s future. They are so disadvantaged even at the best of times.

But we can help. The groups who received smartphones last year are now doing well – they are accessing their schools online and we are providing lots of remote support: careers advice, encouragement, English lessons and regular contact. Earlier this week we distributed food parcels to their families and we are now distributing a further 2000 (each one supplies a family of 6 with basic rations for a month). There is more to come. Thanks to your generosity we can afford to keep providing essential relief for some weeks.  More children will receive smartphones in the next few days.

As ever, thank you for your generosity. You are changing lives.

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