Until mid-March, there was no scare of a pandemic in North-east India. Though many were talking about the deadly virus that had hit China, when videos and news began to do the rounds on social media, people at large were not entirely affected by panic or fear. Nevertheless, for years, most people in the North-east cover their nose and mouth or wear a face mask.
Not for being aware, health conscious, or preventing a disease, but due to the dust and vehicular fumes. Soon, however, as the virus arrived in India, a nation-wide lockdown began with key advisories and guidelines to use face masks and hand sanitisers, and frequently wash one’s hands. People suddenly scrambled for the said essentials.
Once demand went up, most medical stores ran out of hand sanitisers and masks. Women in the North-east states are known for their contributions to social causes and tremendous role in the economy. Even in this pandemic, it is women — individuals and Self Help Groups — who have come to the rescue. A number of pictures of women sewing face masks have been seen on social media.
They were making and distributing them for free. While pictures of several SHGs who were making hand sanitisers and distributing them were also circulated. Women in the North-east are largely skilled in tailoring, handloom, and handicrafts and that has come in handy in this crisis. Their home-based work is all the more an advantage.
Numerous women have been utilising their lockdown stay by stitching masks on their sewing machines, coming in small groups to make sanitisers and distributing ration to the needy. Moreover, it is women who have come up with ideas for crisis response even though they are not experts. They have common sense and presence of mind, an ability to take quick, sensible actions and find immediate ideas and innovations.
In the Northeast, women vendors can be seen out in the street corners selling their small garden produce during the lockdown that has halted the essential commodity supply chain. Most states in the region are dependent on the import of commodities and that has been severely hampered due to the lockdown as transport came to a standstill. During such hard times women vendors are seen with their vegetables and agricultural produce.
People just throng to buy their wares whenever there is a relaxation of the lockdown and they have been a source of much relief for the general public. It is amply clear that during the lockdown, the kitchen gardens of these women in their fields, farms and homes are feeding the people at large. What is even more significant is that women have reached out to a large population by distributing relief materials including rice, dal, oil and vegetables.
Most women in rural and semiurban areas of the North-east cannot afford to be at home. They are engaged in economic activities, both formal and informal. Therefore, there are at a huge risk of contracting the virus but even then, they go out to ensure there is food at home. Most women in professional jobs are in the healthcare sector, primarily as nurses. In this pandemic, these women are at the frontline taking care of patients while leaving behind young children at home.
As everyone is anxious about what the future holds, it is also women, especially in the informal and unorganised sector, who are glaring at a not-so-bright future. Small-scale industries, traditional productions of handloom and handicrafts are now facing a major hit in terms of loss of market, and there is no guarantee that they will pick up. Women in this region are all, one way or another, engaged in informal economic activities.
Mostly as vegetable vendors, handloom artisans, home based-work such as food processing and other small time occupations. These are women who have come together in the form of SHGs. For them, a stop in activity for even a day or two is long enough hit their daily livelihood. This lockdown, now running into months and unlikely to be fully lifted soon, is a real challenge for all, especially women.
The current concern is the new normal – how would a post-Covid-19 world look for these rural women in the North-east? It is a worry, in terms of health as well as economy as this crisis also affects mental well-being. The future is not bright but a ray of hope is that in any crisis, there is an opportunity for change. It will also be incumbent upon all to make things right. And in such a situation, support or no support, women will hopefully come out with their own means to survive, as they always have. In fact they surely will!
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Imphal)