The world today is engulfed by the Covid-19 crisis. A globalized, interconnected world has complicated the crisis further and contributed to its exponential growth. Many countries took notice of it in Feb 2020 and implemented stricter lockdown measures in different periods in March. India was among the few countries that had taken many prevention and precautionary measures right from January, much before WHO declared COVID-19 as a public health emergency on 30th Jan, 2020. It implemented travel bans from many countries that were extended to the United Kingdom also from 18th Mar, 2020. With India going on a lockdown on Mar 23rd, fresh travel restrictions are in place till May 3rd.
Around the same time, an exponential crisis of coronavirus was emerging in the UK with 2500 cases recorded just in a month’s time. Subsequently, UK too announced a lockdown on 20th March. This set of extraordinary circumstances impacted many Indian students in the UK and also some Indian nationals who were on a visit to the UK for a few days, either for exams or on tourist visas. Perceiving plausible panic among the stranded students and nationals, an Indian student body, INSA stepped up.
Indian National Students’ Association (INSA) is a relatively new organisation formed in 2016 with a vision to support and guide the Indian students in the UK while helping them also to integrate in the country. Their aim is also to protect and project the rich cultural heritage of India and create brand ambassadors (can be followed on twitter/ FB via @INSAUK).
INSA immediately set up a small team for students to reach out to for any concerns/issues. This intuitive step helped as they received a large volume of calls and realised the immense amount of pressure and stress among the students namely:
- Financial stress as many would typically supplement their daily expenses of rent, food and in some cases, part of their university fees with part-time jobs. These jobs were primarily in the rental and hospitality sector and they had shut down.
- Psychological stress as many students along with their parents wished to be back in India with the rapid increase in covid-19 cases in UK
- Health-related stress with any small signs of flu or any other ailments which possibly needed immediate attention
- Legal issues with regards to rental contracts, etc.
Understanding the enormity of the task, INSA teamed up with another UK based Indian diaspora organisation FISI or Friends of India Society International. FISI, formed in 1975, is an active organisation that works towards strengthening UK-India relations and building a strong Indian diaspora network in the UK.
Together INSA and FISI set up dedicated teams to help address the crisis situation among the stranded Indian students and nationals. A two-tier structure was devised wherein a frontline interface of social media team and call team responded to the queries raised by the students which were then filtered to the next level of teams handling food, accommodation, legal and medical issues.
Currently, a team of 25 volunteers is in place to attend calls throughout the day and 15 volunteers are similarly replying to queries on social media and emails. This interface proved essential as apart from redirecting concerns, they also provided verified latest updates on flight status, visa extension, rules regarding rental contracts, etc. This helped squash the associated rumours floating in various social media platforms as INSA and FISI were constantly in touch with the High Commission of India for the latest updates. Most importantly, this interface provided a reassuring voice that the students needed to quell their anxieties as many were psychologically overwhelmed. The team also had people from different parts of India, so if the students felt better speaking to someone in their mother tongue, the same was arranged.
One of the volunteers, Madhuresh Mishra, related one such conversation where an individual had a lot of anxiety and was dismayed with the rapidly increasing Covid-19 cases in the UK. But, during the conversation when he realised that Madhuresh was from the same place in Uttar Pradesh as him, he immediately felt at ease and in a few minutes after the conversation a calmness prevailed on him. Similar instances were recorded by many volunteers. As per them, a listening ear and an assurance of a support system had a positive impact on the student’s psyche. This was highlighted by some of the feedback for the work done by INSA and FISI.
As of today, about 1500 calls and more than 1200 emails were catered to by the volunteers. Each and every query were patiently listened to and addressed.
Food and accommodation were arranged by volunteers themselves or they tapped into the broader Indian diaspora network and organisations for help namely Rajasthan Association UK, Akshaya Patra, Bengali Hindu Samaj, etc. As many communities were providing help locally in the UK, they connected the students or Indian nationals who needed help with food and accommodation accordingly. A key organisation that they relied on was Sewa Day, a registered charity organisation in the UK, that has many volunteers involved in community service. As part of the Covid-19 response, about 1400 volunteers have signed up to lend a hand as per their capacity in this hour of need.
In addition, INSA and FISI are also raising funds from the broader community in order to help continue to deliver these services.
As of 10th April, about 3000 meals have been arranged and 268 accommodation issues sorted. The legal team stepped in when issues related to rental contracts or eviction threats cropped up.
An emergency medics team is in place to address any medical concerns. They have provided consultations and also delivered medicines when required. There was this one instance when a student had kidney stones which had gotten complicated as it had moved to the veins. He had difficulty reaching the NHS. The medics team had a urologist with whom he had an initial telephonic consultation that helped stabilise his case till he received further treatment from NHS. They received many thankful notes for these acts of kindness and support.
Lastly, the team has come up with innovative methods to help keep the minds busy and positive in this stressful situation. They hosted an online talent show ‘Quarantalents’ where students were encouraged to send videos of their inner talents – be it music, dance, mimicry, etc. and the same was showcased on INSA’s social media handles. They also launched a ‘Positive Connect’ webinar series where they intend to have talks by doctors, lawyers and some motivational speakers to answer some of the impending queries and also uplift the spirits of many while we stay put.
The team of INSA and FISI has many full-time workers, yet they have taken up this role as volunteers in these difficult times. They are selflessly putting in their efforts to provide a support system for the stranded Indians in the UK. Their work has inspired many students in return and many have joined them to volunteer or initiated INSA chapters at their universities in UK.
In all this, the cohesiveness of the Indian diaspora just shines through demonstrated by the Shanti Mantra.
“Sarve Sukhinah Bhavantu; Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah”
“May all become happy; May none fall ill”
(This article has been written by Sweta Mohanty Bhatia)