-By Ruchira Gupta
What do you do when a little girl tells you that she is starving? Simple. You do anything you can to make sure it won’t happen again.
Or at least that’s what I did – one year ago, towards the end of March 2020, when a deadly pandemic had started taking over the world.
Sent back from school, trapped in a red-light area in Delhi, where her mother lived, the little girl and her family, had no food. She sent me a WhatsApp message: “Didi, we are hungry. We have not eaten for two days. Do something.”
I was alone in my sister’s New Delhi apartment when COVID-19 hit. My sister was stopped in a Himalayan town as she was driving back to me. I was packed to leave for New York where I live with my husband, who works in the United Nations. But the New York airports were crowded with people fleeing the Europe lockdown. So, I decided to stay a little longer in India.
The Indian Prime Minister had imposed a curfew-like lockdown in India overnight. Cars, buses, trains, and flights were cancelled. Shops, offices, factories, schools, hotel, restaurants were shut down with no preparation.
I was worried: How could I get food to the little girl? I called a civil servant friend, who helped me get a curfew pass and lent me her car to drive to the girl. A restaurateur opened an underground kitchen and packed up 500 meals. I loaded these in the trunk of my car and drove to her squatters settlement in in South West Delhi.
By the time I reached the area, a community mobiliser for my NGO Apne Aap had set up the food distribution for the little girl and her family. But when I reached there, my heart sank. I saw that 2,000 hungry people had lined up. As I unloaded the food, I wished I had more.
I resolved that I would set up a system to make sure that the 10,000 women and children in the red light areas that Apne Aap normally helps would get food right through the Covid-19 crisis.
In April 2020, I launched a food drive for a 100 days for 10,000 women and girls.
At the time, I thought this would pass in a month or so, or that the government would set up systems by then. But the pandemic has spread, and a year on, our #1MillionMeals food drive has supported more than 50,000 excluded women and children across India, with tonnes of dry ration, sanitary pads, medicines and wi-fi dongles and computers for the children.
As the year went by, there was nothing set up for the women and children by the government. When school re-opened this January, I was thrilled. The children would be back in a safe environment, taught by real teachers, and have a peer network.
But in three months, the schools closed again due to the second wave of the pandemic. The teenage girl and her little sister were again back in the red light area. This time, unable to feed them, their mother has left them.
Covid-19 has threatened the future of millions of Indian children. According to a report in ReliefWeb, six million children have no access to food because they have lost a parent or a parent has lost a job. They will enter the work force if they survive, and school will be interrupted forever.
In India, UNICEF reports that school closures have impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary education, and 28 million children who were attending pre-school education in anganwadi centres. This is in addition to the more than 6 million girls and boys who were already out of school prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
For most teenagers, if their inbox is over capacity or internet is slow, it is a catastrophe. For these teenagers, the most important thing is food, housing, safety, health and education – in that order.
We cannot depend on the government stepping in. This year, in spite of the absolutely terrible impact on the most vulnerable children, there was a slash in government budgets for education!
Our community mobiliser has found the two young sisters a safe and airy apartment with food, computer and wi-fi. I chat with the older sister on WhatsApp and she tells me her favourite song is Runaway by Aurora. I ask her how she discovered this Norwegian singer and why she likes the song. She says she likes the lyrics:
“And I kept runnin’
For a soft place to fall
And I was runnin’ far away
Would I run off the world someday?”