08/28/2020, 14.47
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Church’s social outreach in Assam against COVID-19

by Nirmala Carvalho

The first coronavirus case was reported in April with serious health and economic consequences. The lockdown has left transgender people, rickshaw drivers, migrant workers and day labourers hungry. In Assam the Church’s North East Diocesan Social Service Society has helped 43,738 families. Recent flooding has compounded the ongoing coronavirus emergency.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Assam, which borders West Bengal in north-eastern India, is one of the States most affected by COVID-19. The pandemic has not only harmed people's health, but also caused havoc to their way of life.

The State, which has a population of about 32 million people, reported its first COVID-19 case on 1 April, at a time of controversy and clashes over the government's decision to deny Indian citizenship to Muslim refugees.

Now the fears and privations caused by the disease have added anger, anxiety, and alienation to the situation. Because of the long lockdown imposed by government and the suspension of transport, poverty and destitution have spread.

Day labourers are among the most affected, unable to work, without money or food. Farmers too have been hit, as have middle class families with little or no savings to ride out this difficult time.

With travel suspended, many people have been unable to return to their native village and now lack the basics, including food. Many have gathered in public places or in the streets, without social distancing. Only the privileged have been able to isolate themselves without any fear.

Under the circumstance, the Assam government has tried to raise awareness and enforce safety protocols to stop the spread of the pandemic. But it appears less responsive to the most vulnerable and the marginalised.

Although it raised daily wages from 182 rupees (US$ 2.50) to 202 rupees (US$ 2.75) and handed out free food grains, it is not clear who and how many may have benefited.

For this reason, the Catholic Church’s North East Diocesan Social Service Society (NEDSSS), an Assam-based NGO, working with Protestant and other religious groups, is helping out with food, medical items and educational materials (for children and young people). at least 43,738 families have been helped so far. They include various groups.

Transgender are the most affected. They make a living from what they collect on trains. But due to the full lockdown and the lack of savings or home, they need food, personal hygiene items, masks, etc.

Rickshaw drivers are for the most part from other States and live with their families in slums or on the banks of the Brahmaputra. They survive on their daily earnings. But the lockdown has wiped out their income, leaving them hungry. To help them, a community kitchen was set up to provide food every day. They also get hand sanitisers, masks, and more.

Migrant workers have not been able to go home because state borders have been closed and interstate travel has been banned. Without work, they earn nothing and cannot buy food. NEDSSS has helped at least 42,827 migrants so far.

Day labourers live on what they earn each day, from hand to mouth, and the lockdown hit them hard, leaving them unable to work. Even those who made a living by collecting firewood were left stranded. Throughout the lockdown they survived on the food provided by NEDSSS.

Speaking to AsiaNews, NEDSSS director Fr Varghese Velickakam said that the COVID-19 emergency is not over yet. At the same time, another emergency has emerged, i.e. floods, which have wiped out fields, crops and homes. NEDSSS is now providing flood relief to some 5,000 families.

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