Unsung Heroes of Lucknow

Earlier this year, India was in the grips of a devastating second wave of the virus and cities were facing fresh lockdowns. In mid-April, the country averaged more than 100,000 cases a day. It was the worst public health emergency the country had ever experienced. Social media feeds were filled with heartbreaking videos of Covid funerals at crowded cemeteries, wailing relatives of the dead outside hospitals, long queues of ambulances carrying gasping patients, mortuaries overflowing with the dead, and patients, sometimes two to a bed, crammed in corridors and lobbies of hospitals. Under the frantic calls for beds, medicines, oxygen, essential drugs, and tests, the system had practically collapsed. 


Among the most important political centers in India and the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh’s capital city Lucknow, was also impacted by the deadly wave. Despite the government’s failure to respond appropriately to the crisis and its attempt to incite communal hatred to divert the public’s attention, ordinary men and women rose to the occasion and emerged as heroes to help those who were in need.  


Rita Sharma, Founder of ‘Shaktiswaroopa Sewa Sansthan’, a Lucknow based NGO saw the plight of roadside vendors and shopkeepers who were the most vulnerable at the time and decided to help them by distributing masks. She told Voices of Peace, “The government was regularly issuing advisories for us to wear cotton masks and keep them clean. But these people couldn’t keep their surgical masks clean, let alone afford cotton ones. So I thought of distributing 2 cotton masks per person so that they can stay safe from the infection and we can tackle Corona together. After this, our organization started this initiative.” At a time when people were concerned about their individual safety, Rita Sharma didn’t hesitate to help those in need because she believed everyone was facing the same virus and the dangers it posed.


India was afflicted by not one, but two viruses at the time – one of Covid-19 and the other of communal hatred. In the early days of the Pandemic, several members of the minority Muslim community were branded as super-spreaders of the Corona virus and were jailed after being slapped with terrorism charges. The ruling party used this as one of the few ways to distract people from its incompetence in handling the crisis by inciting hate and diverting public attention. Despite all the hatred going around, several members of the minority community came forward to help people in need, regardless of their religious backgrounds.   


Azra Mobeen, a mother of two and a social worker, went out on streets to help people especially those from the Hindu community to conduct the last rites of their loved ones. “In my opinion, during the second wave, I was not able to see the religion of the patient, whether he was a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or a Christian. At that time I was only able to see that people were losing lives and their dead bodies were lying unattended on the streets. Corpses were piled up in cemeteries and crematoriums. That was a very scary situation and was very painful to see. In that situation, one could not even think about religious differences,” she told Voices of Peace. When asked what prompted her to go and help people at a time when her family’s safety might have been at risk, she replied that she felt it was her duty to help. 


In Lucknow, another social worker, Imdad Ali, grabbed headlines for giving dignified send-offs to members of the Hindu community. He said that it was not just the duty of one person but of every human being to come forward and do the work which he and his team did. 


Azra and Imdad, like many others, shattered the narrative that was being played by the mainstream media against minorities and became an example of Hindu-Muslim unity and humanity by breaking the barriers of religion and caste to help the needy at a time when people were afraid and wary of meeting even their close relatives and friends. They proved that Indians can–and do–rise up from their differences to come together during times of crisis. Indeed, it is this tendency that defines India.