[COVID Warriors] How Mercy Mission brought a group of NGOs together to provide food, ration, beds, oxygen, and dignity in death amid the pandemic

Bengaluru-based Mercy Mission has brought together 25 NGOs with around 400 volunteers, to tackle different challenges relating to the pandemic. No task is ever cumbersome for the relentless volunteers.

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, and with the lockdown that ensued, most people in the country retreated into the safe confines of their homes.

Meanwhile, homeless people, migrant workers, and other underserved populations of the society were left to fend for themselves.

While many suffered, many others braved the challenges and went on to look for sources of income, thrusting themselves into the frontline.

Numerous NGOs sprang into action to distribute care packages for those in distress.

But a group of people based in Bengaluru, under the title Mercy Mission, came together to represent different NGOs and organisations, so they could mobilise all the support and reach out to a larger number of people and areas within the city.

The volunteers from HWA distributing ration kits in Sarjapura

Mercy Mission started as a coalition of about four to five NGOs in the beginning, but it is now a large group with over 25 NGOs working in collaboration including The Lifeline Foundation, The United Foundation (TUF), Project Smile, HBS Hospital, and HWA Charitable Foundation, among others. These NGOs are all aligned to the cause of helping the underserved and the helpless fight the pandemic.

SocialStory got in touch with a few of the spirited volunteers of Mercy Mission. They shared their journey of helping others and opened up about the issues that challenged their willpower.

Starting out

Mohammed Ali Shariff, Secretary of Mercy Mission, and a Trustee of The Lifeline Foundation, who also happens to be a venture capitalist, says, “Sometime last year, we saw television visuals from Italy where they were digging graves using JCBs. It got us thinking, what would happen if India were to be in a similar situation?”

In March 2020, the group came together for three main projects – Mercy Angels, Mercy Awareness and Mercy Kitchens.

Mercy Angels were initially organised to manage deaths due to COVID-19, since people were wary of dealing with funerals considering the gravity of the disease. Volunteers of the coalition, however, were not daunted by the challenge. Their priority was to give the victims a dignified funeral.

The team of Mercy Angels handled the first 100 Covid-related deaths in Bengaluru during the first wave in 2020, at a time when the city was still grappling with uncertainty. The volunteers carried on for about three months before other organisations started to come forward to help.

Mercy Angels ensured that victims of COVID-19 received a dignified death.

“This was and still is a very difficult task as families are shattered at the thought of not being able to see their loved ones for one last time. But, we try to give them a proper funeral acknowledging their religious backgrounds as well,” says Mohammed Irfan, President of TUF.

Another rising problem was the need for food and ration. “There was an urgent need for ration and essential items, so we divided the city into 25 zones and 300 areas, and planned our distribution accordingly,” says Ali.

The team also distributed freshly prepared meals to the homeless through Mercy Kitchens, and one of them is set up at Crescent Institutions, Basavanagudi.

The modern, hygienic kitchen facility prepares nutritious meals for frontline warriors (doctors & hospital staff), COVID-19 patients and the poor. This kitchen is currently serving the needs of patients and staff at HBS Hospital, staff at Bangalore Hospital, the poor in Arul-Ragigudda slum, and a homeless night shelter in a temple in Kalasipalyam.

So far, the kitchen has served 2,131 breakfasts, 4,665 lunches and 3,121 dinners during April 2021. In addition to this kitchen, around nine kitchens are also being operated by Lifeline in Govindpura and Tilaknagar, Project Smile in Avalahalli and TUF in DJ Halli areas in Bangalore. These have served around 12,000 meals in April 2021 alone. During the first wave, they distributed over 1 crore meals through rations and cooked food.

Besides providing free meals, the kitchen also employs people who have lost their jobs. This enables the unemployed to have a sense of self-sustenance.

Medical services

One of the Mercy Mission NGOs, HBS Hospital, became a dedicated COVID-19 facility in April 2020 with 50 beds. Mercy Mission also facilitated HBS Hospital to open and operate an oxygen centre with 32 rooms under the guidance of Dr Taha Mateen.

The centre catered to COVID patients who were fit for discharge but needed close monitoring and oxygen support. It helped enhance hospital capacity and free beds for critical patients.

During the first wave, over 250 patients benefitted from this initiative. With the surge in demand in the second wave, the model has now been adopted and renamed by the government as “Step Down Hospital” in April 2021.

Mercy Mission is also operating six Mercy Oxygen Centres across Bengaluru - in Basavanagudi, Bhoopasandra, Mysore Road, Frazer Town, Mahadevapura and Koramangala. A volunteer team of 18 manage the six oxygen centres.

Since April 14 this year, over 837 cylinders have been dispatched.

“Apart from this, we started Mercy Plasma to distribute plasma for free. We arranged plasma donors and connected them to medical centres where critical patients were in need of plasma,” Ali says.

Mercy Mission also has a centralised public helpline operated by Project Smile, in association with TUF, to reach out to the patients requiring ambulance, oxygen, plasma and guidance services.

A team of 50 volunteers and 20 staff operate the helpline.

“Once, we received a call from an elderly woman who wanted to book an ambulance, because she had assumed she was going to die in two days because of COVID-19. People were anxious, mainly due to the uncertainty, and that’s where the helpdesk came in to help talk them through it,” says Irfan.


Packing meals at a Mercy Kitchen

Mercy Mission’s outreach has benefitted lakhs of people in Bangalore since March 2020. With its many initiatives, from Mercy Angels to Mercy Helpline, it is solving a range of pandemic associated challenges for those in distress.

The sheer number of volunteers from across NGOs in the city enabled better reach and impact. Volunteers pick up varying tasks like writing and communicating messages to distributing a meal or even handling the calls without any hesitation.

Shameer Mohammed of HWA Charitable Foundation says, “We have been supporting HBS hospital in enhancing security and coordinating food supply for staff. We also help operate the Al Ameen Hospital, which was converted to a COVID-19 care centre under HBS. Being an architect, I took up the design and coordination of external areas of Al-Ameen Hospital as part of its capacity building.”

Their efforts were funded mainly through various NGO members, CSR initiatives and crowdfunding platforms like Milaap and GiveIndia. They also received in-kind donation based on requirements from the Rotary Club.

Challenges and the way forward

Sarah, one of the trustee members of Project Smile shares that dealing with the pandemic has been horrendous because most people are not used to seeing death upfront.

“A man visited our office, and was struggling with his oxygen level at 40. Our volunteers tried to arrange a bed for him, but unfortunately, he passed away after two days,” she recalls.

“We do everything in our power to help them out at that instant. While there is a sense of hope, there is also a sense of helplessness, and juggling both at the same time becomes a challenge,” she adds.

While Mercy Mission’s operations have largely been smooth, the team did face a few challenges because many NGOs came together. The different opinions of each group did create differences, but the cause, on the whole, kept the team united.

The volunteers of MM at the Al-Ameen COVID centre with Dr Taha Mateen from HBS (centre)

“Moreover, it’s all about conquering your fears in light of something unknown. While everyone was scared, our volunteers were always on the forefront,” says Ali.

Mercy Mission is now trying to organise a vaccination drive within the city, and also ramp up oxygen capacities in medical centres before the onset of a third wave.

“For the long term though, we want to reach out to other places in Karnataka and inspire NGOs in those areas to create an association similar to ours, so that we can combat this pandemic on a much larger scale,” Ali signs off.
Edited by Anju Narayanan


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