‘People are doing so much’: the Facebook group helping vulnerable people in India

Sometime in mid-March Sandhya Honawar, from Mumbai, visited her psychiatrist. The 67-year-old, who lives alone, thought it would make sense to get a repeat prescription for her anti-depressants and anxiety medication ahead of time, given that coronavirus had arrived in India and lockdown was imminent.

For several days afterwards, she went from pharmacy to pharmacy on foot with the prescription but each time came back empty-handed. Some pharmacists said they did not have the drugs she was looking for; others asked her to return later. Days went by. To conserve her existing stash, she started taking half or just quarter of her usual dosage. When lockdown came into effect, she panicked and called a friend on the other side of the city asking if she could help. The friend had no way to get to her but suggested Honawar join a Facebook group called Caremongers India.

The group, which now has about 45,000 members, was started by Mahita Nagaraj, a digital marketing professional from Bangalore, in the early days of the pandemic. She got the idea after a few friends living abroad asked her for help checking in with their elderly parents in India.

In addition to people offering to help via Facebook posts, there is also a helpline and a Whatsapp number. At the beginning of the lockdown, the group was receiving more than 1000 calls and 2000 messages each day. That number has steadied now to about 150-200 calls each day, and about 600-800 messages.

So far, the Caremongers group, which has “Let’s stop spreading fear – let’s spread love instead” as its mission statement, has fulfilled 16,000 requests since it began. Examples include food and provisions being delivered to the doorsteps of the elderly and help and support given to women in abusive relationships who have been put in touch with women rights organisations through the group. Nagaraj said in a recent post that the group also helped members in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, Muscat, Dubai, Ghana, Singapore, Nepal, Zambia, Nigeria.

Honawar’s first post was a little hesitant as she says she did not know what to expect. She wrote: “The withdrawal symptoms can be very bad where you become completely immobilised, you can’t think, you can’t keep your eyes open, you get brain zaps. Can someone please help me?”

Within hours of her post, there were 165 comments. Her inbox was flooded with messages offering to help, from all over the country. Some suggested to order the medicines online, some offered to check out stores in their neighbourhoods. “I was just overwhelmed by the kindness from complete strangers,” says Honawar.

Aarti Klinge, an ex-garment manufacturer, saw her post and called a psychiatrist she knew well. The psychiatrist sent Honawar a fresh prescription via WhatsApp. Honawar then sent the prescription to those who offered to get her medicines, including Klinge herself, who lives in a suburb next to Honawar’s.

People are doing so much for others. What I did was really nothing

What has prompted people to take risks for complete strangers? “I thought, even I might need help someday. She was alone. I had to help her in any way possible, even though there were moments when I was afraid, standing in line with people around. After a few rounds to pharmacies, I found one which agreed to home deliver,” says Klinge.

Pooja Basu also went to one medical store after another with the prescription. She finally found a hospital which had a strip. But they said they could only give it to the patient. She then took a rickshaw, picked up Honawar from her house three kilometres away and went back to the pharmacy.

“I was scared, of course, because I live with my mother who is a senior citizen. But it was fine. People are doing so much for others. What I did was really nothing.”

Last week, Honawar posted on the group again. This time, she needed a gaslighter. Could anyone tell her where she could buy one? Basu had an extra lighter. She called the same rickshaw driver and asked him if he could pick up “the lady he had picked up a few weeks before.” He agreed right away and Honawar was quickly able to get what she needed.

Basu says: “She kept thanking me, but I told her she could buy me coffee once all this was over.”