September 07, 2021

Hitting close to home


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Vaibhav- Hi, this is Vaibhav. And you are listening to Tales from the field where we talk to people we're trying to make the world a better place with their contributions in research, analytics, and working at the grassroots.

Abhishek- None of us were prepared for this. It was very, very scary. But then we are trying to work within these limitations.

Vaibhav- I spoke to three people who gave us insights into their experiences in these trying times, because nobody was prepared when our Prime Minister told us this.

(News Bulletin)

First, I spoke to Abhishek, Assistant Vice President at Sambodhi, about how the research sector has been responding to the pandemic.

Abhishek- You know, frankly, none of us were prepared for this. Nobody saw it coming. But then we adapted and managed pretty well. I mean, to the best of our abilities, the best we could.

As an organization and the sector, I think we were swift to respond to the pandemic more than many of the organizations in the sector. So yes, at the same time, new projects also started to come in. But give us more time to think about new and more innovative methodologies and ways of collecting data remotely.

Vaibhav- Abhishek, you say that none of us were prepared. And that is true. But when did it first hit home for you?

Abhishek- So, I think last year, around March, when the lockdown actually started, my four-month-old puppy actually fell sick around the same time, and I had to take him to the vet. Now, if you remember, at the same time, millions of migrant workers were leaving Delhi, and the bus stops were flooded with people. It was a chock-a-block situation.

Sometime later, I got to know that around eight lakh workers had left the city during that time. So to control the crowd, Delhi police had sealed all entries and exits to the bus stops, especially the Anand Vihar bus stop, which is where my vet clinic happened to be. So I was getting my pup to this vet when I was stopped by the police at one of these checkpoints. I knew I had to turn back. I mean, there was no chance they would let us through.

This is the exact moment that my partner started to cry, right there in the middle of the road. We felt so helpless at that time. I mean, with all these things happening around us. We felt so vulnerable in the face of everything that was happening. They finally let us pass though. But then we realized that we were in all of this together, some sort of an unspoken connection, something that I would say that made us retain our humanity. Despite all the horrible things that were happening around us.

Vaibhav- Abhishek wasn't the only one to have their homes affected by COVID. We have a great field manager, Bipin Mishra, who had a harrowing experience trying to get back home from the field when the lockdown was announced. And he had to spend three whole days quarantining in and wait for it in his balcony.

Bipin- So 2020, 16th March 2020. Actually, we are conducting training for water aid projects at Lucknow and 13th, 14th, 15th, three days already completed for the training or 16th ko debrief ho raha tha (and debriefing was on 16th).

Wo session mai hi le raha tha (I was only taking that session). Toh COVID se related us time yeh bol rahe the ki ho sakta hai ki postpone karna pade, band karna.pade. (So there were speculations that we might have to postpone or shut down the training session due to COVID).

So that time we didn’t have idea about COVID, Corona, Corona, Corona, whatever. Toh lunch ke time announce kiya usko ki abhi hmara training session bahut accha raha or kuch der ke liye postpone karte hai. COVID nam ki koi ek infection hai, ya kya hai, iske bare mai abhi hm logo ko pta nahi hai, lekin ek saptah bad apko phir se inform karenge or hum log project ko start karenge. Aise band kiya. Or lunch ke immediate bad dekhiye kitni situation horrible hoti chali gayi hai. So ek samay ke liye laga (During our lunch hours, we got the news that our training session went well, and it will be put on hold for a while. There is an infection or maybe something else, known as COVID, about which even they were uncertain, but after a week, they’ll inform us again and restart the project. It was shut like this, and immediately after the lunch, the situation became too horrible. So, for a while, it was felt that) around 175 peoples are there. All are stuck that time.

They're unable to understand what is going on. So us time jo bhi jisko jis tarah se milein, ap nikalo. Bas itna hi tha. Jaise koi achanak curfew lagti hai, or sab apne apne ghar ko settle karte hai, apne apne taraf bhagte hai, us tarah ki situation hone lagi thi wahan se. Samajh main nahi a rha tha ki ab kya krein. Itna jaldi kya krein. Ultimately, by late night, sabhi log yahan se chalein gaye. (So at that time, it was like, whatever you get, take it, and leave. It was like a sudden curfew, where everyone settles their home; run towards their home; the situation was turning out to be like this from there. We couldn’t understand what to do, and that too in such a short span of time. Ultimately, by late night, everyone had left).

Main (Me) late night also, I took bus for Anand Vihar from Lucknow, and reached our home and I say to my family, so let me at least one day just leave me alone. Because we didn't have idea about COVID, Corona. That infection is spreading more and more everywhere. So, we have only two, two rooms house in Delhi, and we’re staying with my families there. So, where we should stay? So, I thought balconies better than rooms. Chose to stay in the balcony.

Vaibhav- How big was the balcony?

Bipin- Balcony, fifteen by four. Jab hmein feel kiya ki hmein fever ho rahi hai, or thodi der ke liye scared hua ki ab kya karna hai? Toh next day se jab hmein fatigue shuru hui toh hmein pakka determine ho gaya ki ab humko ghar par kam se kam 3 days at least humko stay karna hai. Ab isolation mai humko jana chahiye. Ye toh humne sun rakha tha. Toh ye 17th, 18th or 19th, ye 3 days hum wahan par the. (When I started feeling feverish, I got scared for a while and started wondering what should I do now? So the next day, when I started feeling tired, it was confirmed that I’ve to stay at home for at least 3 days. Now I’ve to be under home isolation. We’d already heard about this. So for three days, i.e., 17th, 18th, and 19th, I was at home only).

In the meantime, so many cases started to come from my blocks. Ek toh mere ghar ke neeche hi case a gaye. Toh us ghar ko hi, puri building ko hi seal kar diya. Us samay Government bhot tight thi; police bhi bhot tight thi. Toh ye first time ka first experience, ye Corona, COVID ka ye tha hamara. (One COVID case was detected in my neighborhood only. So the house, the entire building, was sealed. During that time, the Government was very strict; the police were also too strict. So, this was our first experience of Corona/COVID).

Vaibhav- Now, what we want to know is how the experience and the response differ between the two COVID waves. A friend of mine and a great researcher, Tanushka Ojha, who's the manager of research at Sambodhi felt this first-hand.

Tanushka- So there was some difference while traveling during the first wave and second wave. The reality of Corona was more visible during my visit in the second wave. So during the first wave, we were so fearful when we went to the you know rural areas.

We were thinking whether the most important fear was whether community is going to entertain us; whether they are going to interact with us? That was the I mean, the biggest fear. But to our surprise, in during the first wave community, I mean, they were totally open. Rarely people were wearing any masks or people they were even talking about COVID.

But during my second visit, I found that now people are so much talking about it. At least 30 to 40% people are wearing masks; they are following COVID appropriate behavior, and they're talking about it that ya you guys are traveling in our village, you know, so many people got infected and they died. And you know it’s a risk.

So that was a stark difference between my first visit and second visit that during the first visit though the urban areas hard, not as worst as first secondary, but it's still there was a significant impact. But for rural areas, it was still not a reality. But during the second wave, I saw, I mean the fear and the awareness and the practices around COVID.

Vaibhav- Now getting back to you, Abhishek. What were your perspectives on the ground realities?

Abhishek- To begin with, one couldn't help mentioning the stark difference that you would observe between the urban and the rural settings, especially in terms of the awareness and the preparedness, not only of the people but also of the health functionaries at that time.

In certain rural areas, some people even felt that it was just a political gimmick. And you know, because the state elections are also approaching, so many of them felt that it was just a political gimmick. And you know, there was actually no scare of COVID around the corner. So no wonder the situation because of all these things got from bad to worse. And the second wave.

Vaibhav- You know, another aspect is with your work, traveling. What was it like traveling during COVID wave? Was it even scary to think about because the clients they want us to stop these operations? Everything is needs to move forward. So, were you scared to put yourself out there?

Vaibhav- To be honest Vaibhav, it was very, very scary. I had to travel almost four to five times every month. And every time I did and came back home, I was really scared whether I had COVID and whether I had passed it on to my family members as well. You wouldn't want to be the one responsible for them getting sick.

So, I remember this incident vividly when I went to meet this client. And the day after the meeting, I came back home, and the client called me and told me that he is COVID positive. I just froze at that time in terror because I had spent the whole day of the previous day sitting almost like six feet away from her.

It was very scary till I knew I wasn’t COVID positive too. I mean, luckily, that very evening, I got myself tested the RTPCR test and the results came negative. So, so that was a major, major relief for me.

And, I mean, they were quick to intimate people, which was the best part. And, you know, so a lot of contact tracing could have been done. And there were many people in their office at that, on that day who had tested positive. So I came to know later, unfortunately, a couple of them passed away, also. So, so that was really sad.
Vaibhav- So you know, the research community and just general push to think of how we can conduct research, you know, in different ways, especially in the field in these unusual circumstances. How do you think that the pandemic drove innovation? You know, and I think also working on the back end, working with clients. So how did they respond to this also?

Abhishek- The COVID pandemic actually pushed us in a very uncomfortable situation, to begin with. One of the major shifts that we witnessed was from face-to-face surveys or telephonic interviews. The traditional ways of the classical ways of collecting data had to be moved to more remote, you know, survey, survey-based solutions, because, you know, you could no more reach out to the respondents in person anymore, and people would not even entertain you, for face-to-face interviews anymore.

But then even the telephonic interviews has its limitations too. The duration of the interviews reduced substantially, and so did the response rate. So if you would make calls to 100 people, they would be hardly 15 to 20 people actually responding to you. That also depends on the time of the day, and you're making these calls. And sometimes the number of completed interviews might also come down to say 10 or 15. So on more luckier days, we would get around 25 to 30 interviews.

Also, at times to address these limitations, the question is became more streamlined, we have to think about how only the pertinent questions or the most pertinent question should only be administered or asked to the respondents; all the redundancies were minimized. So questions other than the research, you know, the research questions were not included in the survey at all. Because of all these changes, the surveys were lesser resource intense and came up as a good alternative to the traditional ways of collecting data.

Another revelation was how effectively we could implement the assignments and manage meetings and interact with the clients without having to travel for hours. So earlier, we would travel almost like to a different city at time for which we'll have to travel to the airport, then maybe you know have a journey for around two to three hours; reach the destination; again, make that cab journey; wait for the meeting to be scheduled. But that took in a lot of time.

But all of that was reduced to seconds. Now when we simply had to log in using an online platform and both, the researcher as well as a client, or the donor, we're comfortable using the virtual space. So that was really comforting. So yes, imagine the time that has been saved because of all these exercises.

I mean, now all this time that we have saved actually could be put to effective use, and certain that the sector will continue retaining these changed habits, even after things get back to normal. I mean, if at all.

Vaibhav- If it gets back to normal now, but it must be nice that now you're able to balance family time and dealing with a client so you can have the best of both worlds. Now, one would say.

Abhishek- Yes, yes. It had its benefits right as well. And, you know, it had shortcomings as well. You don't get to interact with your colleagues that much. You don't share the same rapport that you used to earlier. But then these we're all trying to work within these limitations. And we are all doing well so far.

Vaibhav- Right. Now that is good to hear. I think there's so many advances and innovations that we're making and hoping that we keep pushing and ploughing through this. So thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Abhishek- Honestly, I'm just glad that you didn't ask me about my zooms or team meetings fails that have happened. So I think we would need another episode.

Vaibhav- You want to give us a teaser for that or maybe just save it for the next episode?

Abhishek- Let’s just save it for the next episode.

Vaibhav- Right Thank you. Thank you for tuning in.

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