The Bengaluru-based 38-year-old shot to fame last year with “Didi’s Kitchen”, a heart-warming effort he launched in July to help Saroj, his domestic worker, who was struggling during the lockdown, earn more money as a home chef, taking orders, most famously for her Mangalorean crab curry.
Even for Vengurlekar, who consciously tries to be optimistic and helps others do the same, the ongoing Covid surge feels different. “This year, and this wave specifically, seems excruciating because the pandemic has come closer home. My brother tested positive — he’s alone and isolating in a hotel in Delhi though, fortunately, his symptoms are mild,” he says.
Vengurlekar has had to suspend his recent efforts to deliver food cooked by Saroj to those with Covid because he himself is running a fever.
Vengurlekar’s sentiments are echoed around the country which, a year after it first went into lockdown, now seems to be worse off. The contrast could not be more stark for many in the middle and upper middle class who were able to spend the nationwide lockdown sheltering at home because they could afford to do so. The most common refrain, as Vengurlekar put it, is that the pandemic now feels a lot closer.
You need to look no further than social media timelines to see the dystopian reality playing out around us. The images of last summer’s quirky, light-hearted trends people turned to out of boredom like whipping up Dalgona coffee, baking banana bread or sharing notes about spin mops, now feel like a different life. In their place, desperate appeals for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, plasma and prescription drugs have taken over Twitter and Instagram feeds, all too often accompanied by the words “SOS” and “urgent”.
It feels like collective grief, shared despair. It is as if everyone knows someone who is battling either Covid or Covid-related grief, or both. “No one seems detached. No one is talking about anything else,” says Aastha Sethi, 26, a public health professional in Mumbai. On Thursday, India reported 3.14 lakh new cases, the world’s biggest daily tally and the fastest rise in cases the country has seen. Sethi spent last year’s lockdown remotely working from her hometown Vadodara and, by November, had begun going out for her field work, an essential part of her job. While working from home, she had been able to drum up some enthusiasm in setting up her workspace and had enjoyed spending time with her family. But this time, back in Mumbai, it’s different. “My productivity has dipped. The dread and anxiety is much deeper. I keep thinking about when this will end,” she says.
For some, the 2020 lockdown was even a time of productivity and creativity, either at day jobs or through new hobbies and habits. This time, many speak about crippling anxiety and the inability to do anything more than amplify the multiple messages for help on social media.
Last year, an increased understanding of Covid-19 brought with it a sense of control and hope, with people thinking that they were beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel, says Minaish Dhabhar, a therapist at Kaha Mind, Bengaluru. But the recent lockdowns, curfews and surge in cases have left many feeling that they were thrown back to square one without warning. “The idea of entering a second tunnel has, for many of us, challenged the sense of hope and control we had regained. It has also brought an extra layer of uncertainty about our ability to continue coping with the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken,” says Dhabhar.
What’s been additionally unsettling are reports of younger people, including children, getting Covid, unlike last year, when the message was that young people needed to stay indoors for the sake of others, like older family members.
There is also a sense of anger and frustration over the failure of administration to cope with the surge as healthcare infrastructure crumbled in many places. “Last time, nobody could do much because we just had a month or so to prepare. But we could have done something in 14 months. This lack of a plan scares me — we are basically at the mercy of the virus,” says Suchitra Laxman, a Mumbai-based strategy consultant. Since she was on a sabbatical, Laxman had devoted much of her energies last year to social work, first helping migrant workers during the crisis and later other long-term causes like education through her IIM alumni network for women. This time, she says, she has been trying amplify messages for help on WhatsApp groups and Twitter, making small databases of contacts. “That’s helping me keep sane.” It’s this and rewatching Friends after an entire decade that is helping her cope. “It’s all my brain can handle.”
This has also been a long year of precaution, apprehension and social distancing for many. Ever since the pandemic began, Laxman occasionally met someone outdoors but never in anyone’s homes or any other indoor setting. Though her close friends never pressured her, she admits it was hard to stick to her guns. “I felt like an idiot at times. I tweeted once, ‘please tell me I’m not alone’, and the replies were heartening.” Alia Sojwal, another Mumbai resident, would empathise.
“I have a four-year-old at home so we have been really, really cautious. I can count the number of times I’ve stepped out last year on my fingers.” This earned her jibes like, “They will get an award from Maharashtra government”, but she says she did not care.
What did grate were comments that everyone was responsible for the dire straits the Covid-ravaged country is in. “It’s extremely triggering to see people say that we brought this upon ourselves. Don’t include me in that because I didn’t visit my mother for a whole year, keeping both her health and mine in mind. I would never be able to forgive myself if something happened to her because of me,” says Sojwal.
Similarly, Mridul Saboo, a 34-year-old consultant in New Delhi, cannot wrap her head around the fact that the acquaintances who were paying scant attention to social distancing and wearing masks are outraging about the crowds at the Kumbh Mela. “A cousin was out and about in Bengaluru — her first Instagram story was a picture of that and the next was about Kumbh. If you are not going out yourself then it’s okay to criticise but this was hypocrisy,” she says. In Bengaluru, Vikram Sood, an entrepreneur who recently launched his food truck venture, says he has many friends who continued to go out, without masks, even after contracting and recovering from Covid. “If they can’t go out, they invite friends home as if the virus can’t enter houses,” he says.
Sood thinks normalcy would not return for a couple of years. “What we need is behavioural change,” he says. The 41-year-old’s father and brother are currently isolating due to Covid. Those who took precautions for over a year feel cheated, agrees Vengurlekar. “Those posting travel pictures on Instagram have the privilege to call up people they know to get a hospital bed or oxygen support, But because of their actions, others are affected.” For now, he is taking heart from what he calls a groundswell of community support. “We will continue doing what we do, despite administrative inaction and misplaced priorities. That’s also much louder and clearer this year.”