“Follow the NHS guidelines on Covid 19, stay home, stay safe. For any issues like food and accommodation you can reach out to us. You are not alone. We are here to support you. With a name like Shiva you have nothing to fear, so stay positive”.
The last sentence elicited a laugh from Shiva, a student who five minutes back had called on the INSA and FISI UK helplines and expressed anxiety over the rising death numbers in UK. The volunteer speaking to Shiva was amongst 25 others, who have been taking calls from Indian students and Indian nationals stranded in UK, daily, from 8am to 10 pm, since 22nd March, when the lockdown was announced in India and all travel between UK and India was suspended. Between the two organizations, the Indian National Students Association (INSA) and the Friends of India Society UK (FISI UK), volunteers have attended to 690 calls and responded to 255 emails, providing necessary support to students and stranded Indian nationals in UK.
CoVid 19 is a pandemic of unprecedented proportions. It not only took the world by surprise but the fast-evolving situation has left many unprepared to deal with the situation. INSA, an organisation dedicated to supporting Indian students in UK quickly stepped up during this time, to provide help and support. To respond to this crisis effectively it was critical to have support of other organizations like FISI UK, which has been working towards promoting and strengthening relations between India and the United Kingdom since 1975.
VARIETY OF SUPPORT/HELP REQUIRED
The sheer volume of call and emails gives a glimpse of the challenge posed by this pandemic. A total of 1680 Indian students and Indian nationals have been attended to in a short space of less than three weeks by the INSA and FISI UK teams. 255 emails were responded to by volunteers working from 8am to 10 pm every day. The queries have been wide ranging from accommodation and food, to medical and legal advice.
INSA President Amit Tiwari said that the biggest query by far has been on evacuation plans for Indian students and nationals and the team has received calls not only from Bharat but all over the world requesting help. INSA has a national team which has been taking calls, responding to emails and managing the various social media platforms. The engagement has not been restricted to students but has also been with tourists and people with other visas currently stranded in UK.
ACCOMMODATION, FOOD AND MEDICAL NEEDS
268 accommodation issues have been addressed as of 10th April, by either making arrangements for stay or extending tenancy by speaking to the landlords or student accommodation providers.
As the lockdown continues many students and non-students, have called in saying they are running out of cash. Many have been supported with food and provided access to food banks. More than 3000 meals have been provided by the volunteers themselves or by organizations like SEWA UK and Rajasthan Association UK. Many students looking for part-time jobs have been signposted to businesses seeking employees.
On 2nd April a stranded Indian national received the medicines he had requested for. He wrote back saying “My medicines were finished and I needed medicines urgently and requested FISI Team for help since I didn’t know anyone in London. Mr Madhuresh Mishra from FISI Team called me and helped me in getting medicines. This is invaluable help in this hour of crisis”. The Covid response team has both lawyers and Medics on board. 26 people have been supported with medical emergency including arranging required medicines and consultations.
COUNSELLING FOR ANXIETY
As days have passed into weeks and the death rates rise in UK, there has been an increase in anxiety. Many students desperate to go back to their families in India have needed counselling. The distinct advantage of the INSA and FISI volunteer pool has been that their diversity. Volunteers belong to different states from India and speak different Indian languages. The Team has been sensitive to the advantages of a caller speaking to a volunteer in their own language. Volunteers have been flagging such needs. An anxious caller belonging from Uttar Pradesh received a follow up all from someone hailing from his district in UP. Callers from Andhra Pradesh maybe directed to Telugu speaking volunteers if needed. A Kashmiri student Khalid (name changed) who needed assistance with food was not only provided with packed meals but he was assigned to a volunteer from Jammu & Kashmir, to make him feel more comfortable.
In times of crisis fake rumours circulating on social media tend to add to the already high levels of stress. The social media platforms of INSA and FISI, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram have been providing clear verified updates on the current prevailing status - squashing any associated rumours with regards to evacuation plans, operation of flights, visa extension rules etc.
Campaigns like ‘Qurantalents’ and Positive Connect Webinar Series have been introduced as an extension of the outreach, keeping in mind the mental well being of students who have been forced into isolation far away from their families. ‘Quarantalents – Fame from Home’, on INSA’s Instagram platform saw 100 entries from students. This included self-composed poems, dance and song videos, beatboxing and more.
The Positive Connect Webinar Series was launched with a talk on Art of Remaining Positive by Rohit Vadhwana, a Diplomat and Writer. It was attended by nearly 80 people. The coming weeks will see talks by more motivational speakers, medical and legal professionals.
The volunteers of the INSA FISI Covid response teams have been working tirelessly and selflessly. Sewa during this time of crisis being the only motivation. ‘We are all in this together’ is the spirit that the volunteers have been transferring onto the community as well. This was reiterated by the feedback of a young student Priyanka who wrote to thank INSA and FISI volunteers and added “Indians make a huge community and we have always been taught to show kindness and care for others. I think that we have been given all the arsenal required to tackle this pandemic if we just go back to our roots of helping people. At times, all that someone needs is a listening ear because knowing that we are not alone in a situation, gives us a necessary boost in morale”. In fact many students grateful for the support by INSA at time of such crisis have offered to volunteer with them and start INSA chapters in their Universities in UK.
Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members”. This is being epitomised by the volunteers of INSA and FISI and other Indian community organizations in UK, who have risen to the challenge posed by this global pandemic.