What did our COVID-19 relief work teach us?

By Ronisha Bhattacharyya

Mintu Devi from Milki village in Bihar’s Nawada block sits quietly across the handpump next to her house, puzzled by our presence. Her husband left her five years ago, and her parents are no more. “The only way I have survived this life is by working hard and with honesty,” she says. Mintu Devi lost her job as a day-time maid shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the government to declare a lockdown, in March 2020.  With no support system, she has suffered an endless nightmare for a year. Abandoned by society and her family, Mintu Devi cannot comprehend why anyone, let alone a non-profit, would want to help her. “Aap kyun madad karna chahte ho?” she asked. Her question hasn’t stopped ringing in my head since I first heard it.

According to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, India’s unemployment rate shot up to 27.1% in May 2020. Of the 122 million who lost their jobs, 91.3 million were small traders and labourers. A significant number of salaried workers (17.8 million) and self-employed people (18.2 million) also lost work.

I have seen the otherwise crowded Gurugram, which housed millions of young professionals, become a ghost town in weeks.

The year 2020 will be chronicled in history as a time of great struggle. Scenes of desperate migrant workers fleeing cities on foot to return to their villages played endlessly in media. Their informal jobs, which account for 90% of the workforce, were the first to be hit as construction work stopped, cities suspended public transport, and many non-essential services shut down. Under these unprecedented circumstances, Grameen Foundation India (GFI) launched its COVID-19 response programme to provide unconditional cash support to vulnerable individuals who have been the hardest hit. Before we began our work in Bihar, one of the adversely affected states in India, little did we know that innovation and technology would become the main catalysts of our work.

To transfer cash to the most affected, GFI developed an application, the Grameen4Giving app, which helped identify beneficiaries. The algorithm identifies the most vulnerable by using quantifiable indicators and community-based participatory wealth-ranking. Once a person is identified, the tool sends the name to the project committee so that she can be taken on board. Once the beneficiary selection committee clears the name, we make the direct cash transfer to her. We gave this cash aid to over 1,400 people across Nawada in Bihar and Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region.

In the wake of the humanitarian crisis that has hit most of us, it is natural to ask, why do we care? Time and again, social impact organizations around the globe, have come together to provide timely and effective solutions in such crises. The year 2020 taught us how crucial it has become to make friends with technology, and stay united and connected by leveraging it. Collaboration has become the keyword as teams across geographies and time zones brainstorm for sustainable solutions. GFI’s goal is to help those most in need so that they can keep alive their hopes and aspire for a better future.

We must retain empathy and compassion as people. And this year has taught us again why a collective conscious for good is often sacrosanct for a healthy nation.