How India lightens its crisis

As government fails in curbing COVID-19, a rush of volunteers and donors step in, perhaps weaving new levels of trust in India.

Homeless people line up for free food at a charity in Hyderabad, India, May 6.

For journalists in India, these are head-twisting days. The government’s failure to deal with a surge in coronavirus cases has turned the news media’s attention to a part of society that has responded well: the millions of volunteers and small-scale donors who are assisting sick and destitute people during a COVID-19 wave.

For a country that has long ranked relatively low in charitable giving, India is coming on strong in weaving new levels of public trust.

Stories of people feeding hundreds have gone viral. So have tales of social media “warriors” helping people find medical supplies. “There is ... an impressive supply of ordinary citizens, charities, private companies and even the odd public servant taking their own initiatives to mitigate the crisis,” reports The Economist.

On social media, too, big-name observers note the rush of giving: “We’re total strangers to each other, we’re donating, we’re trying to figure a way to end each other’s pain and suffering,” said famed Indian actor Kriti Sanon on Instagram.

One reason for journalists suddenly discovering this burst of charity is that an estimated 90% of giving in India is local and religious-based. Most of India’s 4 million nonprofits are small with only a handful of employees. Philanthropy by the wealthy has certainly grown – it hit a record high last year and is expected to go even higher because of the response to COVID-19. But says Meenakshi Batra of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) India, “India has a strong culture of giving, but it largely remains unorganized and informal. Assisting others or helping strangers is viewed as a family or a community/religious obligation.”

Just before the pandemic, a CAF survey found 34% of Indians had helped a stranger, 34% had donated money, and 19% had done volunteer work. The next survey will likely raise those figures as a result of the pandemic. Also, people in India may have noticed the generous giving from Indians abroad, a diaspora estimated to be more than 32 million.

Worldwide, levels of trust in government and news media declined last year, according to a survey by Edelman communications. But trust in nonprofits remains high, notably for their ethical practices, such as transparency, honesty, and public purpose. “Trust restores balance and enables partnership,” the Edelman survey found.

As the world watches India cope with a virus surge, it can also be witness to a society strengthening its social bonds. People are healing in more ways than one.

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