With masks being a perplexing concept for the poor, distribution of free masks has helped this municipality battle the corona blues.
By Savyata Mishra
When the nation’s poor is battered by the ongoing lockdown and millions of migrant workers are still stuck in camps far away from their homes, the chairperson of a tiny municipality in Koraput district of Odisha has been handing out hope, free of cost.
Subhashree Mallick, Chairperson of Sunabeda municipality, a place largely populated by tribal communities, said that it was challenging to explain the disease to these people. The town has a population of over 65,000, according to census 2011.
“About half of the population consists of daily-wage labourers, vegetable vendors and small farmers. They live in congested small villages and I have to take utmost precaution while walking through these lanes to distribute masks hand-to-hand,” she said. For the large swathe of Sunabeda’s population that lives a hand-to-mouth existence, masks and handwashes were an obscure idea.
Subhashree struck upon this idea when she saw the extent of panic amongst her people regarding the coronavirus. She said, “People irrespective of age would ask curious questions about the virus and how contagious it was. The fear and panic exacerbated as the possibility of a lockdown became clear.”
By then, shops had run out of masks while the majority of the population was still without them. So she decided to make them herself. She bought cotton fabric from cloth stores and started making masks at home. She also gave this idea to other self-help groups (SHGs) and a team of 108 members came forward to sew masks.
Since then she has made and distributed over 3000 masks amongst the poor and the needy. “The relief and the happiness on their faces are worth the effort,” she said.
Sangita, the president of the 108-member team, Rudraksha Mahasangh, that makes masks in Sunabeda said, “There were initial hiccups when people were not eager to volunteer for this activity. However, when the opportunity to earn from making masks was factored in by the chairperson, people started showing interest.”
Pragati, a non-governmental organisation placed its initial order for 1870 masks with Rudraksha Mahasangh which the team delivered within three days. Prabhakar Adhikari, secretary of this NGO that aims to cover 50,000 people, said, “We started distributing these masks along with soaps in villages. We have so far covered around 19,800 people.” The NGO has spent over Rs 8.5 lakh for procuring masks and soaps, funded under the “Livelihood Project” by EdelGive Foundation.
Mr Prabhakar feels that it is extremely important to protect the most vulnerable section of the society from the coronavirus. “The government has announced that people without masks will be penalised. But where can the poor buy masks from? The tribal community here doesn’t have the concept of washing hands or wearing masks.” He thus mobilised support from the community of farmers and producers in the village who contribute in small amounts to fight the virus.
In another such instance, the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee (DSGMC) has also decided to distribute masks in the national capital through various gurudwaras. Similarly in Bihar, an officer from the Indian Army has taken to distributing masks sewn at home in his village.
Bikram Keshari Mishra, a sociology expert and a professor at Ravenshaw University, Cuttack, said, “Distributing free masks to the needy at times like this is like distributing rooh afza to the thirsty in summers. Leaders should come forward and put theory into practice by making sure help reaches the needy.”
Such an act kills two birds with one stone, he said. “Not only does it provide masks to the people who cannot afford one, but also makes the ignorant more aware, thereby changing the perception of people for future crises to come.”