by Romita Roy
Bring me the astrologer who accurately predicted 2020 and I’ll give you a million dollars. 2020 is the quintessential ‘kick in the butt’ to all horoscope readings, meticulous plans and future projections. Unprecedented times can give rise to unprecedented heroes- nothing can be truer for the paradigm-shifting few months we’ve been through. In the face of the unknown, the status quo has suddenly been pulled out beneath our feet, and the only tools that have fared us well are presence of mind, swift action and relentless service. If there ever was a year that truly deserves a ‘Women of the Year’ awardee list, this year definitely tops the charts.
That’s exactly what Vogue did with their ‘Women of the Year 2020’ list. What was so different about this year? Well, the airbrushed leggy divas gave way to a KK Shailaja on the cover- Kerala’s health minister who rose to fame even before Covid to handle another deadly virus- Nipah. (Alternate covers featured IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath) The buck didn’t stop there.
Instead of featuring the regular ‘crème’ of society, Vogue decided to represent the *gasp* hoi polloi, the many unsung heroes that came forth in this time, who in Vogue’s words:
‘shines the spotlight on the women at the medical frontlines and essential services—doctors, nurses, scientists, innovators—alongside behind-the-scene heroes working tirelessly to help us through the ongoing pandemic.’
Once known as an elitist industry with a ‘you can’t sit with us’ attitude, the acknowledgement from Vogue is the metaphorical ‘flinging doors open’ to perhaps the most important link in the fashion chain- the consumer. The term ‘Luxury’ seems to have turned on its head- luxury in 2020 is not having to worry about a family member or one’s own health, to have a stable income and the resources to hold fort till this storm blows over. “We’re all in this together” is the resounding takeaway, and even though social divides were very apparent during the lockdown, the ultimate reality was before everyone to see; the virus doesn’t spare anyone, irrespective of caste, creed and privilege. Homogenisation of society in this way and the mega collaborative efforts seen across social strata confirms that it is still too early to lose faith in humanity.
Bringing to you just a handful of the real MVPs of 2020, some of whom don’t even have a social media presence, and most of whom both you and I have only heard of thanks to their Vogue feature.
KK Shailaja: Physics teacher to ‘Nipah Princess’
Fondly known as ‘Shailaja teacher’ for her background as a physics and bio teacher, Shailaja is no novice to viruses. The Nipah virus, a bat-borne virus with a fatality rate of 50-75%, broke out in 2018 in Kerala just when she was appointed as the health minister.
On January 18, 2020, when WHO released its first statement, her first concern was unsurprisingly- students. Many Kerala students were studying at Wuhan University at the time and because of her experience with deadly pathogens, Shailaja knew she had to act fast.
According to Sciencemag.org, she “called a meeting of her rapid response team, set up a control room, and mobilized surveillance teams. On 27 January, the first group of students flew back from Wuhan. Three days later, one of them tested positive for COVID-19, becoming India’s first confirmed case.” The early onset of the virus in the state was no deterrent for the well-equipped ministry. For a state that’s ripe for the spread of the virus due to a number of reasons, (residents who live abroad and migrant labourer influx among a few) only 0.36% of confirmed cases have died, one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.
Shailaja’s affable demeanour and hands-on personality are what many attribute to her success. “She listens to people, she visits hospitals privately, she talks to doctors,” says K. Srinath Reddy, director of the Public Health Foundation of India. “She comes across as a person who is blessed both in ability and humility.” This action-oriented philosophy is something she thinks has stemmed from her grandmother. According to an article in Sciencemag, “Her grandmother took part in local movements against untouchability (the persecution of caste groups seen as lesser or “impure”), sometimes taking young Shailaja along to tumultuous protests. Shailaja says her grandmother taught her to be brave, and not only in politics. Smallpox was once widespread in Kerala, and the sick were often shunned or abandoned to die; many people believed patients were cursed by a goddess. But not her grandmother. She would visit patients in their homes and offer them clean water, good food, and traditional herbal remedies. “She was very bold,” Shailaja says. “Everybody should have such a grandmother.”
Just like any other woman climbing the professional ladder, Shailaja has had to deal with her share of resentment. She was sarcastically called the ‘Nipah Princess’ by a political rival after a feature film called Virus was made about the outbreak, with a leading actress playing her role. More recently a politician called her ‘Covid Queen’, a jab taken at the recent surge of cases in the state. Her retort: introducing new lockdown measures, stringent checking and protecting the elderly. She said in her ever-dignified fashion, “Until we get a vaccine, all of us will have to sacrifice some pleasures in our lives.”
IPS Rema Rajeshwari: Jogini-saver to fake news buster
We’ve all fallen prey to Whatsapp university forwards and the consequence of it in our lives. With an impending pandemic to feed on the fear of people, fake news was flying faster than ever before. In stepped Mahbubnagar’s Superintendent of Police Rema Rajeshwari, a tech-savvy IPS officer of her Telangana district who has been manning social media pleas of help since the beginning of the outbreak. Working as a frontline worker in the midst of villages, Rema quickly understood how the lack of knowledge in such a situation can lead to dangerous aftermaths. "Once positive COVID-19 cases started being reported in India, there was massive misinformation being spread. Myths like turmeric can fight COVID-19 or heat will kill the virus, cow dung in the courtyard will keep the virus away, etc, spread at an alarming rate, taking away the focus from hygiene and self-isolation. Deep trust in friends and family made the villagers take these rumours and warnings at face value.", she said.
In response, Rema thought of innovative ways of ‘crisis communication’. She hired local drummers to go around villages with accurate information and precautions to be taken for the virus. “Town criers are the lifeline of the rural communication network. Announcing the arrival of #COVID in the village. And about the geographic quarantine, lockdown and safety precautions. #Crisp #Transparent #Clear #IndiaFightsCorona”, she tweeted.
Few people know this but Rema’s work also includes saving Joginis, the female sex slaves of the Devadasi tradition prevalent in Andhra Pradesh. Over 2000 Joginis were found to be in Mahbubnagar district alone. Rema collaborated with Jan Shikshan Sansthan to impart vocational skills to the Joginis, and trained them in sewing and other trades. the She attributes her meticulous passion for service to the gruelling training she underwent at National Police Academy Hyderabad:
“Finding purpose can be a long, arduous process that requires introspection and reflection, and then a strong commitment to act. In my case, I found it during my training days. I worked very hard and made use of every opportunity that came my way. We had fantastic exposure to various aspects of policing like anti-extremist/counter-terrorist work, jungle warfare, tactics, modern weaponry, cyber crimes. The list is endless. The training was the best part. It was tough in the initial phase, but one gets used to it.”
Aanchal Narang: Queer psychologist to sex worker relief
“Hi. I’m Aanchal, the founder of Another Light. I’m a trained therapist with a Master’s in Applied Clinical Psychology from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai), who specializes in customizing mental healthcare practices to suit the healing journeys and coping mechanisms of my clients.” This is how Aanchal introduces herself on her website, Another Light.
A self-identified queer person (according to her Instagram), she started off as a queer affirmative counsellor with the Mariwala Health Initiative. Ever since she has been associated with organisations such as The Plane Jar; for the rehabilitation of abuse survivors and Light Up, where she conducts workshops for sex workers and their children.
It was when the lockdown was announced when her mind went back to these sex workers. How were they earning their daily bread in times which call for social distancing? She decided to start close to home- with the 5000-odd sex workers living in Mumbai’s Kamathipura district. After doing her due diligence, she narrowed down on NGO Prerana- “Prerana is an organisation that works to end intergenerational prostitution and protect women and children from the threats of human trafficking by defending their rights and dignity. Like most nonprofits, they are focused on relief and aid work during the time of this pandemic,” she says. But how does one raise funds out of the blue? Start a Ketto page, of course. “Within four or five hours, we hit Rs 60,000 and by end of day one we had a lakh,” Narang says. She decided to cap the crowdfunding campaign at Rs 3,20,000- a target she achieved within three days. The plan was to provide kits of ration to the sex workers- one soap, one sanitiser and a mask, along with a Ration Relief kit which has three kilos of rice, three kilos wheat flour and three kilos of dal.
Riding high on the success of her Ketto campaign, she decided to extend the same principle to assist victims of domestic abuse- a large segment affected due to the lockdown. The National Commission for Women reported 587 domestic violence complaints between March 23 and April 16 in the country- a huge leap from earlier numbers. This time, teaming up with organisation Seher and a few friends, Aanchal started a Ketto campaign for the Urja Trust- a homeless shelter in Dadar which saw a rise in its women residents post lockdown announcement- claiming to have escaped from domestic abuse in their homes.
She told Vogue when asked about the motivation behind her work, “I think it is kind of selfish in some way. I needed to feel positive so I did something about it. I didn't want to throw my hands up and say that I don’t know what’s gonna happen to all these women.”
About the author
Romita Roy is a freelance writer & illustrator. She has a fashion background from NIFT and has written for Bombay Times, Quint and BW Businessworld. She is an advocate for sustainable fashion and slow living. She navigates the dilemmas of being a conscious millennial through her writing. Follow her blog on @agirlnamedromita on Instagram for more!