Yogesh Bharadwaj | Apr 3, 2020 | 6 min read
In Vrindavan, A Home for Widows Prepares To Protect Its Elderly From COVID-19 Credit: Yogesh Bhardwaj for IndiaSpend
Yogesh Bharadwaj and Saurabh Sharma
Mathura: When Usha Dasi, 72, found out about the coronavirus outbreak in the second week of March 2020, she stopped attending puja ceremonies at the Radha Raman temple, 1.5 km from her room at the Maa Sharda Ashram in Uttar Pradesh’s Vrindavan. Breaking with her routine of 15 years, she said she now prays in her room.
“We have been told that taking precautions, like washing our hands frequently with soap and keeping our faces covered, will keep this disease away,” Usha Dasi told IndiaSpend. The home where she lives has 100 elderly residents.
Scores of shelter homes dot Vrindavan in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, where, for decades, indigent widows have congregated to live and pray--away from families and society that have turned them out, or to seek spiritual solace. There are more than 10,000 such widows in Vrindavan, as per a 2019 report by the NGO Sulabh International, a significantly higher estimate than the previous one of more than 3,000 in 2005, as per a 2009-10 study by the National Commission for Women (NCW).
Most of these women are elderly--the population most at risk of developing a serious illness from COVID-19. COVID-19 would be particularly dangerous if it spreads in an enclosed space where people live in close proximity, such as prisons and orphanages, warned the World Health Organization. The pandemic has claimed XX lives and infected at least XXX in India (as of XX).
Maa Sharda Ashram is prepared for this situation, said its caretaker, Madhan Jha. They have a team of 15, including doctors on-call, a 24-hour ambulance, regular medical check-ups and sessions to make the women aware of the need to wash their hands with soap often and wear masks.
Maa Sharda Ashram is maintained by Sulabh International. Vrindavan also has six state-run homes for widows, with about 650 residents, said Santosh Mishra, who is in-charge of these homes.
Widows living here get 20 kg wheat and 15 kg rice every month, said Mishra. The government’s Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme provides a pension of Rs 300 per month to below-poverty-line widowed women aged above 40. Those 80 years and older receive Rs 500 a month. The government, in its financial package to alleviate the economic distress caused by the lockdown and the spread of the disease, has said it would provide Rs 1,000 over a period of three months to widowed women.
All ashrams have stock in abundance and there will be no problem in providing cereal, soap, soap, sanitiser, medicine and masks, Mishra added.
The elderly need special care
It is important to keep elderly women under isolation or home quarantine and make sure they eat nutritious food, said Ved Prakash, a senior doctor with King George Medical University in Lucknow. “Precautions are especially necessary in Vrindavan, as it is a hotspot for tourists, and people from abroad flock the temple city, especially in summers,” he said.
Before the countrywide lockdown that began March 25, 2020, the district administration and government hospitals had formed several teams that conducted health check-ups and held awareness camps in hotels, hospitals, temples and other places where groups gather, Mathura’s chief medical officer, Sher Singh, and the district magistrate, Sarvagyaram Mishra, told IndiaSpend. Streets were sanitised, and people were asked to wear masks.
Inside the homes, they watch the news on TV and keep themselves updated on the dangers of the disease, Mishra, the district magistrate said. There are weekly check-ups and the residents have been provided with soap and sanitiser, and entry of people from outside is banned, he added.
When this reporter visited on March 22, 2020, before the national lockdown, he was asked to first wash his hands with soap, then provided a sanitiser and asked to wear a mask at all times and communicate with the residents from a distance.
Credit: Yogesh Bhardwaj for IndiaSpendption: A resident of Maa Sharda Ashram helps another wear a mask in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh on March 22, 2020.
No temple visits, 24-hour ambulance service
The numerous temples at Vrindavan, famous as the city where Lord Krishna spent his childhood, are usually teeming with tourists and local worshippers. All religious places are now closed for the public until April 15, 2020.
“We have even asked religious leaders, seers and saints of the city to make an appeal to the public that they do not come to temples or gather in groups,” Singh, the medical officer, told IndiaSpend.
The women at Maa Sharda Ashram and the state-run homes have been asked to not go to the temple or even gather at the home to pray. “Instead they have been asked to pray in their rooms,” said Mishra, who is in-charge of the government homes.
At Maa Sharda Ashram, there is an ambulance round-the-clock. No one has fallen sick so far, said Govind Gupta, a doctor who conducted medical checks at the home. “We have told them [the residents] about the symptoms of this disease and have asked them to report immediately to the hospital if they feel any of the symptoms.”
According to a study by the National Commission for Women in the year 2009-10, the stay of these widows in government run shelter homes was marred by several issues. The report highlighted that the widows are living under unhygienic conditions and some of them were not getting their pensions regularly.
The living conditions of the widows of Vrindavan have been highlighted by several news reports.
In case of their pension money reaching out to them, the widows (mainly older than 70) were forced to rely on the meager sum they earn at the Bhajan Ashrams or resort to begging on the streets.
In the year 2007, Environment and Consumer Protection Foundation filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court drawing its attention towards the poor living conditions of widows in Vrindavan. The apex court then directed the state government, the Ministry for Women and Child Development and National Commission for Women were directed to file reports on the issue and some measures were taken in the year of 2015 by the Uttar Pradesh government. After 11 years of continuous pursuance, the reports and recommendations were filed which led to the construction of a news 1000-bed capacity shelter home for widows – Krishna Kutir -- in Vrindavan in 2018.
Similarly, a petition was filed by the National Legal Services Authority in the SC in 2012 highlighting the inhuman disposal of the bodies of dead widows of Vrindavan. The court came down heavily on the state of Uttar Pradesh and also on the National Commission for Women after learning from the petitioner that: “After death, they could not be cremated for lack of funds. The widows who die are cut into pieces and put in gunny bags and then disposed of.”
The court asked the government to make arrangements for the widows, including supply of proper food, mandatory visits by a team of doctors from the Mathura civil hospital twice a week and ensuring basic sanitation in the shelter homes.
(Bharadwaj and Sharma are freelance writers from 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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