By Rajan John, Social Protection Officer, Vizhinjam Mobile Healthcare Unit, HelpAge India
I could sense the aftermath of complete lockdown when I visited the fishing people of the village of Vizhinjam in Kerala, one of the most marginalised groups in the state.
The community depends on fishing for its income, but this is irregular as the work is only seasonal. COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown in India has exacerbated their existing insecurity.
Physical distancing means less people are able to buy fish which has greatly affected the fishing folks’ day-to-day earnings. People are reticent to buy fish from street vendors during the crisis, so the vendors, who are typically women, are seeing their incomes fall, affecting whole households. I had a pep talk with the labourers engaged in the sector who explained how all their income has dried up and some can only feed their family once a day.
I saw how people were suffering silently when I visited households as part of my work for the mobile healthcare unit. We cover the whole area and have carried on throughout the lockdown.
In one house, an older woman smiled as she asked an unexpected question: “You are caring for us with our medical needs, but will there be anyone to take care of our nutritional needs during this time of lockdown? The food grains provided by the Government will soon be gone. What will we do after that?”
I tried to be positive and reassured her that HelpAge is trying its level best to provide survival kits for poor older people like her. It is painful like a dagger piercing my heart that the fishing community of Vizhinjam is so visibly distressed during lockdown.
Nirmala, one of the women I met, said: "I don’t have any job and my husband Michael is the sole breadwinner of the family. We depend on the daily income from fishing and have no savings. Now everything has come to a standstill and we are suffering a lot. We can’t even borrow money as no one will lend it. We were aware of COVID-19 around other parts of the world, but never expected we would be caught in this whirlwind of a pandemic. I only have the ration the government gave us, and it too will vanish within a few days. Then…". She stopped and took a deep breath. Her eyes were moist, and I could sense the agony she was going through.
Dasan an older man living with his wife, told a similar story: "We are poor, and our only income is the old age pension. Though the Government supplied food grains through the ration shop, it was HelpAge India that provided the medicines and hygiene kits we needed at our doorstep. When the authorities directed us to use a mask and sanitisers, they did not tell us how to find money to purchase them. But in this lockdown, you are treating us and providing medicine, and you took care of us by providing the hygiene kits. But now as the food grains are dwindling fast, we need survival kits and livelihood support post-lockdown”.
Though I sometimes felt speechless and helpless, I tried to reassure them, even though uncertainty continues to loom large all over the world. What they need is assurance that they can continue their livelihoods and have a small but regular income.
Later in the day I met another person named Paniyadimma and she too was apprehensive of the future: "Really, it's very difficult for us to survive in this lockdown. In normal times we struggle to earn a living, and now we are stuck. We hope that, in the same way that you provide us with the necessary medicines and hygiene kits, someone will help us with food also."
Whoever I met, I heard about how difficult people's situations are. Though the government says there is no need to panic, life after the pandemic is a big void for the public. The parting shot of an older person I visited just turned me upside down. They said: "It’s better to get the virus than be hungry and suffer endlessly.”
Our visits to older people were a blessing for many and their families. But it was satisfying to know our team was able to provide something to help. But the story is not finished. The community still need assurance that they will not go hungry in the coming days, weeks and months, and that they can get their livelihoods back on track.