Amid speculations that it could become a major coronavirus hotspot in Mumbai, Asia’s largest slum proved otherwise, with the number of new cases falling to 12 last Friday.

women wearing face masks at a relief camp and a support group in dharavi mumbai
Coronavirus Coronavirus Sunday, July 12, 2020 - 15:49

Venila akka, as she is fondly called by Dharavi’s residents, starts distributing tokens around 10 am. The scorching sun makes it seem that it is 12 noon, but the sun does deter over 50 people from queuing up in the narrow street of the settlement for their tokens. They will get their share of lunch only if they get their hands on a token by maintaining physical distancing. The long queue for food was because the residents of Dharavi were not only waging a battle against coronavirus but also against hunger.

“Many people in Dharavi either lost their jobs or were not paid their salaries. No one was ready to immediately come forward and help us since Dharavi is viewed as a slum, with unhygienic environment and unclean people. But now, Dharavi has proved itself with the residents coping well with the pandemic,” says a beaming Venila, who is the founder of Magizhichi Peravai, a women’s rights organisation.

Dharavi has 15% population from Tamil Nadu, who migrated to the settlement in Maharashtra decades ago.

“Namakkunnu yaarum varamatanga, naama dhan namakku nikkanum” (No one will come to help us, we must stand for ourselves),” Venila says the ‘punch dialogue’ like Superstar Ranjinikanth from Kaala, the movie that portrayed the lives of the people of Dharavi. She adds, “I keep repeating these words ‘We must stand for ourselves’ and people participated to clean their own roads, toilets and homes. They also ensured physical distancing in market places and maintained cleanliness. Now you can see the difference, this was largely possible because of people’s effort.”

The sprawling, maze-like Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, has 6 to 10 lakh people residing in roughly five sq kilometers of area. The place has more than five or more people residing within a home of 100 sq ft with no space for physical distancing, yet Dharavi has controlled the spike in cases.

Amid speculations in April that it could become a major hotspot in Mumbai, Asia’s largest slum has proved otherwise by containing the spread of COVID-19.

How did Dharavi make it happen?

Dharavi recorded its first case of coronavirus on April 1. By June 9, it had a total of 2,347 cases. However, the everyday total declined and on Friday, Dharavi reported 12 new cases of coronavirus. The declining doubling rate of Asia’s largest slum even gained the attention of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for effectively controlling the spread of the virus.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday said that Italy, Spain, South Korea and even Dharavi have shown that community engagement and basic testing, tracing and isolating can stop the spread of coronavirus.

But were things simple for the residents of Dharavi? No, says A Kumanarasan of Tamil Lemuria Trust. A Tamil organisation that works for the upliftment of Tamil people in Mumbai, Tamil Lemuria Trust worked extensively with the government and the residents of Dharavi to bring down the infection.

Kumanarasan says the municipality staff were initially scared to step into Dharavi to help. The cramped spaces created fear that they may contract the virus. But very soon, the municipality and state officials identified the major reason for the rampant spread of the coronavirus infection in Dharavi – lack of space for quarantine.

“Once the government realised this, they turned sports clubs, schools and other places into quarantine centres to help with institutional quarantine. They soon set up a hospital dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients. The state government also ramped up the testing. This apart, local organisations and volunteers also helped in the fight. So, it is a collective effort,” Kumanarasan says.

The Tamil Lemuria Trust focussed on three things – helping migrants reach Tamil Nadu, providing medical support, and lastly, arranging financial help.

On the migrant crisis, Kumanarasan says, “We received information about migrant workers walking back home, but they were stopped by the police. They were not given food or proper accommodation. So we contacted bureaucrats and asked for help. We arranged food and stay for a short while. Once the situation improved, we arranged five trains and 20 buses to take them home.”

Also, most of Dharavi’s residents are workers in unorganised sectors who do not have any savings, so once the lockdown was announced many were pushed to dire conditions. Helping them was the next step for the Tamil Lemuria Trust. “Till now, we have provided food and essentials for 6,000 families in Dharavi,” Kumanarasan says.

However, supplying food did not help stop the virus from spreading so Kumanarasan started distributing immunity boosters. He says, “We contacted doctors and friends in Tamil Nadu who advised us to give Kabasura Kudineer. We started providing immunity boosters to Dharavi residents. This greatly helped in containing the virus. Following this, even the police officers took Kabasura Kudineer from us.”

Kabasura Kudineer is a concoction produced by Siddha practitioners that reportedly improves immunity in people. The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had recently asked the central and state government to provide more backing for Siddha medicines and test one such concoction prepared by a Siddha doctor and submit a report by August 3.

Venila says some people exhibited symptoms due to stress and fear around the virus. She says, “I tried to take care of the mental health of the residents too. Even my husband had throat pain and we went to the doctor but he just told my husband to relax. Once his fear vanished, his throat pain also went away. That’s when I started helping people to overcome mental stress.”

Venila was also worried initially, but says, “At first, I was scared to step out. But then I thought if I don’t step out, who else will step out for my people. I started distributing masks, sanitary pads, and cleaning agents for community toilets. People used to say we are from garbage, so I can’t deny that this garbage has also helped us improve our immunity!”

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