As COVID-19 crisis engulfs the world, humanity spreads in Sikkim

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Depen Swaden feeding stray dogs in Namchi during lockdown.

The unprecedented lockdown across the country in view of the Coronavirus pandemic is one of the few occasions in our recent history which has given an opportunity for collective response to the society. Sikkimese have taken to themselves showing some of the most humanitarian responses, while the pandemic has also exposed the inherent fissures that exists in Sikkim and rest of the country.

For instance, Tenzing Dargye, a monk from Ray-Ranka, East Sikkim, who is living in Kalimpong, West Bengal. He runs a  secondary level school, Karmapa Center of Education, as its principal.

“We have built a beautiful school here for all kind of kids. We have 35 kids for now from Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Ladakh and Nepal. As the lockdown was announced, we managed to sent those kids home who are from Sikkim and Darjeeling, but many kids are still here who couldn’t travel and their family also couldn’t come to pick them up as they are very far and also poor. So, we are taking care of them here and keeping them safe. We have closed all the entries and manage to store food for 2 months,” he says.

The inherent goodness of a human being is what is being taught to students in the residential school which has children from 5 to 10 years.

“We are teaching kids to be kind and compassionate because only education is not education enough,” adds the monk.

Being a charity aided school, he is not worried about its future course and his sole focus is now to look after the students who are with him in the global health emergency.

Similarly, in times of crisis, many stories of compassion has emerged in the tiny Himalayan state, which faces such a long lockdown for the first time since its merger.

It started with Hemant Gurung, a school teacher from East Sikkim who waived off the rent for his tenants.

Though the government has appealed to landlords to waive off the monthly rent of tenants for a month, many had given a month rent breather to tenants including to many small service based businesses like restaurants, coaching centres, lodges, beauty parlours, game parlours, cyber cafes and clubs.

Showing another example of exemplary kindness is Maneybong Gram Panchayat Unit member, Naina Subba of Uttarey Bazar in West Sikkim, who has exempted seven families their house rent for the month due to the ongoing lockdown.

Shraddha Rai (name changed) has been running a coaching centre in Gangtok for many years and with CBSE and ICSE not announcing future exam dates, her business has gone in a limbo.

“I had to request our landlord to waive off the rent for a month which she has readily agreed,” she says while expressing concern on the survival of small service based industry post the Coronavirus pandemic recedes in the country.

A rented barber shop located in the outskirts of capital Gangtok is usually buzzing with a packed customer service daily. Sanjay, the owner is worried as his profession can be sustained only with a daily customer service. Instead to returning to his home state in Bihar, he along with his family of three have stayed back following the lockdown. The ration and other essentials and their availability along with price regulation remains a concern for this group of vulnerable section.The limited time further, caused many to a failed panic travel which threatened to disturb the lockdown with huge mass of migrant labourers and workers gathering at Rangpo and Melli border crossing. Such gathering now has a potential virus infection chances as already seen in other parts of the country.

These fault lines have been further aggravated with cases of racist attacks on people from north eastern region of the country. Many Sikkimese students and those working in other states have complained of racial bullying and discrimination, which has further magnified the challenges of this pandemic. The sociological impact of this pandemic is certain to bring some irreversible changes in the overall behavioural processes of the country.

Adding on, Diki Choden Bhutia, a student from Sikkim in Shantiniketan, West Bengal adds, “I also want to request all the other states to kindly be compassionate towards north easterners, because we also are equally scared of the virus and doing our best to survive this along with the rest of India”.

Funerals across the world have adapted to the changing times; likewise in the Himalayan state, obituaries have requested for a “pray-at-home” to well wishers and relatives slated to attend services for the deceased. All papers and social media handles have been publishing such obituaries.

The “organic” love of Sikkimese, for nature and animals have been affected severely with most not venturing out of homes leaving strays vulnerable. Since they play an important part of the local ecosystem, any disturbance to the fragile relationship can result in further aggravation of health problems due to addition of more diseases. This has led to animal care groups to release appeals for feeding the closest species to mankind- dogs, cats, birds and beasts, with even the state government relaxing certain time for feeding stray animals. The Chief Minister, P.S. Golay, announced to the public that whosoever desired to feed stray animals would be allowed to, twice a day during this lockdown.

An initiative taken by Anu Thami, a member of an animal welfare NGO, Animal and Us, along with  Sikkim Anti-Rabies and Animal Health (SARAH), a collaborative project between the Animal Husbandry Department, Foundation Brigitte Bardot (France) and the Australian based NGO, Vets Beyond Borders (VBB), sought the official permission of the Chief Minister and have been working, coordinating via WhatsApp groups, emails and phone calls in feeding the stray animals of the state. Many such volunteers have come forward which has helped SARAH cover far off places in all the four districts of the state. NGOs like Puppy Rescue Crew Foundation India, The Guardians, Sikkim, the Wake Up Movement and many such individuals have been actively involved.

To ensure that the people kept in government facility quarantine at Mining in East Sikkim are regularly updated with the news, Pukar Pandey, the founder of Techno Solutions of Singtam, East Sikkim, has provided free 20mbps internet facility free of cost.

“Let them not feel secluded; this is what I can offer being in business,” he said.

With social distancing as the new formula, Sikkim is slowly but steadily changing different ways to keeping in touch with friends and family through the virtual space.

Rupesh Prasad and Ziten Gupta from Singtam extended free vehicle service to the patients of Singtam bazaar and nearby areas during the lockdown days. They have stated that everyone should join hands to fight against this deadly disease and support each other in this crucial hour.

For Peden Ongmu Namgyal, a professional model from Sikkim, who had left for Mumbai on 9 March for her modeling assignments, it was on 14 March when she heard that a mall was under lockdown.

“I had to come return home, since Maharashtra had and still has the highest cases. My flight was on 21 March. I landed and then took a cab onwards home,” she informs.

While returning home she was screened at Rangpo Check post. She adds that everyone entering Sikkim were scanned for fever first and then were asked to fill up a form wherein all the travel details were to be filled in.

“I was now to maintain a strict ‘home quarantine’. I have been given the same form to fill up if any signs of fever and cough and report on Whatsapp too,” adds Peden who is also Miss India Supranational 2017.

For Gangtok based teacher, Neelam Gurung, it was further a daunting task to reach Andhra Pradesh amid Coronavirus break out in the country. With couple of mouth masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer, she headed to Andhra Pradesh from Gangtok with a group to appear for Bachelor’s of Education practical exams.

“Everyone in the group was obviously terrorized, but we had no choice,” she reveals.

Thankfully the trip of 8 days came to an end and they headed back home and got checked before the isolation. They got down from the vehicle half a mile away from the check post and started walking towards the medical team at the border crossing at Rangpo check post.

“As soon as we said that we came back from Andra Pradesh, we were sprayed more and examined throughly,” says Neelam.

Those studying outside Sikkim who have managed to return home have been advised strict home quarantine.

Rachana Gurung, a medical student from Sikkim in Bangalore adds that after declaration of emergency holidays by the college, she reached Sikkim on 19 March after following all the precautionary measures.

“I am on self quarantine as advised by the health officials in Rangpo check post”.

With the Chief Minister’s call to government employees to donate – albeit not compulsory – a day’s salary in the CM Relief Fund to help combat the growing fear of a possible outbreak of the pandemic in Sikkim, many have been coming forward with donations. Leaders across the political spectrum -SKM, SDF, BJP, Congress – have also come forward for a collective effort to mitigate the crisis shedding many aspects of partisanship.

“I call upon all the Sikkimese people to seriously observe the preventive measures and lend full cooperation to the authorities. Let’s all stay at home and defeat this virus. We can do it. Stay safe and take care,” appeals the former CM and SDF Supremo, Pawan Chamling.

While the entire state stays home, for some government service personnel, hospital and medical staff, police and media personnel, it’s work as usual, faced by daunting task at the ground level, mitigating not only the virus, but also allaying fear and panic in various sections of the people.

A policeman on duty in West Sikkim is faced with the twin challenge of looking after law violations and assuring the public at the same time. Likewise, an employee engaged with public distribution of essential commodities has been increasingly getting queries on the availability of food grains and other essentials.

“It has been a few days of dousing any such fears and rumours. We can only hope of getting over this situation soon,” he says. While Sikkim silently follows the rest of the country in the lockdown, how the situation pans out further, remains shrouded deep in the future. The churning in society post the pandemic can hold the future cues for a close knit Sikkimese societ

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