Two stories–with different endings.
The first, from November 11th, 2020.
Suma, a 38 year old Hakki Pikki tribal woman—the Hakki Pikkis are a nomadic community originally from Gujarat but now settled in Karnataka over the past several generations—was discovered in an almost comatose state by a young health volunteer while doing a COVID survey. Suma was critically ill with chronic anaemia.
She was immediately taken to the local government hospital from where they decided to shift her to a “big hospital” in the city since they were ill-equipped to deal with the case.
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the “big hospital” did not have the blood required to save her. And so began the battle to save Suma.
The fantastically motivated Executive Officer incharge of COVID for the taluk was called at 10 pm. She not only took the call, she also immediately activated the Taluk Health Officer (THO), the Primary Health Centre (PHC) doctor and nurse who in turn sprang into action.
Taking perhaps delayed responsibility to ensure the recovery of a woman whose haemoglobin levels had slipped below critical levels on their watch, there they all were–working the system till midnight, trying to organise blood which finally arrived at 1:30 am.
Helped of course by the collective efforts of our very own Mamatha Yajaman of Gamana Mahila Samuha, who has worked extensively on gender issues and community building in and around Anekal and has built up a formidable support network in the area, and the enthusiasm of young activists Manu Choudhari and Ashique Mohammad who did all the leg work.
At 1:30 am, relieved that Suma had got some relief, my mind drifts back to a night like this almost exactly one decade ago. October 7, 2010 to be precise.
It was late on a night full of thunder, lightning and rain pouring in thick sheets. I was immobilised for lack of any transport and being driven to desperation.
We had spent a good part of the evening and night trying to push a faceless and brutal system to provide medical support for 16-year-old Moogi who had just delivered a child.
Orphaned and left pregnant by an unknown man who had raped her, Moogi was born deaf and dumb. And poor. Hopelessly poor. After a difficult delivery in a private hospital near Bannerghatta, during which she lost a lot of blood, much against our pleas, the private hospital had discharged Moogi and sent her to Vani Vilas Hospital, a government hospital. Obviously, because they knew she would not be able to survive and pay the bill.
Hoping to get some relief, her Dodamma and younger sister accompanied Moogi in the Ambulance to Vani Vilas where they arrived well after 11.30 p.m.
Unfortunately, here too, Moogi was greeted with a surly and indifferent welcome. Her obviously illiterate and innocent Dodamma was callously told, “get the blood immediately or the girl will die within the hour.”
We tried to reach everybody from the bottom to the top of the system to get help. The Dodamma had no money and no way to go hunting around for blood in the night. We begged for one bottle of blood from the hospital blood bank promising to replace it the next morning.
When I called the good neighbour in the bed next to Moogi who had offered her phone to the Dodamma, to speak to the duty nurse, she refused to take the call saying “Why should we talk to anybody. Just go and buy the blood and come otherwise we can do nothing.”
After some time they stopped taking our calls. And there was total silence which was broken at 2:30 am with a call from the hospital to tell us that Moogi had died, and that we should arrange to take the body away before sunrise.
After that, over the next few hours, we got about half a dozen calls from various members of the staff and security asking us why we are not coming to take the body away.
Perhaps to get rid of the evidence pointing to criminal neglect and unconscionable callousness.
Coming back to today, one wonders why the system that was deaf to Moogi was able to pay attention to Suma?
The answer, one suspects, lies in COVID.
This one microscopic virus has brought home many truths. That our macro, faceless economy has to be centred around the micro-world of the anonymous and devalued workers of the informal sector who poured out into the abandoned streets during the lockdown. That our over-centralised political systems will have to be centred around decentralised local systems of mutual interdependence. That our societal health is finally dependent on a functional public health system that has proved to be the only one that can cope with a pandemic and reach out to the most vulnerable who are the most impacted.
A realisation that has at least partially shaken awake these comatose and callous systems that were suddenly forced to become functional. And made visible some officials who are actually accessible and responsive.
Who could imagine a WhatsApp conversation with a public servant in the time of Moogi that went like this:
“Thank you so much for the help last night. What a difference it makes to have people of conscience and commitment in government–it humanises and makes more efficient what is usually a heartless system! More strength to you Dr Vaishnavi.”
“It’s my job ma’am. Please, let me know if I can be of any help further.”
Keeping alive the hopeless hope that the permanent side effect of COVID would be a more compassionate, responsible and responsive system.
And that Suma will heal and survive despite systemic neglect.
A postscript to Moogi’s story, whose child miraculously survived:
We were all gathered on the steps of the Wilson Garden crematorium after Moogi had been sent off on the last journey of her sad, short life.
Her little sister, after a quick family conference, gravely walked over and handed over an even littler bundle into my hands saying, “He is now your responsibility. Give him to a family that will take care of him.”
“Why? Don’t you want him to grow up with you?”
“No, we have got used to this life of going around like vagabonds. We would like him to grow up differently.”
She was all of 12 years old.
We together gave him a name Hakki Pikki style, his unfortunate place of birth–(Vani) Vilas…Home.
That little vagabond ache in my heart has never really gone away.
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[This article was first published on the author’s Facebook page, and has been republished with edits. Read the original article here.]