Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, there has been a lot to worry about. Governments, companies, and nonprofits alike fretted over the macro-level health concerns, creating new policies to keep those they were responsible for healthy, and initiating an effective, scalable response. We diagramed hand washing and learned the distinction between “quarantine”, “shelter-in-place”, “lockdown”, and “social distancing.” There was the great debacle with hoarding toilet paper, getting PPE to frontline health workers and essential employees, and protecting the most vulnerable around us from this deathly virus. We are worried about how to keep the virus from creeping into our own homes. We are tenaciously wiping down every grocery bag and delivery box, cancelling weddings and birthdays and graduation parties, and constantly worrying about our next paycheck vanishing before our eyes.
The list goes on and on. The worries and fears COVID-19 has laid upon us, like an wool blanket in the peak of summer, is irksome and unshakeable.
Though my life has not remained unharmed from the pandemic, I have been thinking of the many ways I know I will not be impacted, no matter how bad this hits my country, state, town, or household. For example, I will not worry about my next period. I do not rely on an NGO’s funding source to obtain birth control pills. I am not afraid the people I am in lockdown with are violent or abusive.
I’ve been replaying the many hours I spent listening to women, specifically caretakers of girls with disabilities, in Puducherry. I listened to how their experience with womanhood and motherhood was tainted with stigmas around menstruation, around having a child with disabilities, and around having a girl child with disabilities who does or will one day menstruate. I heard their exhaustion in running a single-parent home right up to changing their daughter’s sanitary napkin. I learned about their pain when alcohol poisoned their peaceful families, drenched their hard-earned money, and left them with knowing no one will care or protect their child as they do. And I witnessed their strength in their decisions to leave the violence and abuse and to create better lives despite people telling them they did not deserve it.
Having to suddenly evacuate Puducherry was chaotic and heartbreaking, and returning home has been challenging, but neither has been dire. As the pandemic rages on, I know I am lucky that new normal for me does not mean my life is upended in the way so many vulnerable groups have been. In India, there was the mass exodus of migrant workers trying to return to their native villages where they had roofs and family and a semblance of safety. Hospitals are over capacity in red-zone regions, including where near where I worked in Tamil Nadu. Unprecedented flooding ravaged regions of West Bengal and Bangladesh, leaving the poor exposed and relief groups stumbling to aid them.
AIF and my Host Organization, Satya Special School, continue to urgently seek donations to quell the need for food, clean water, and medicine. In the months and years to come, I know there will only be more stories unearthed from the rubble of this unprecedented disaster. There are many stories we are still not hearing, effects that have perhaps not been fully realized. Beyond the tolls on physical health, mental health, and the economy, lies issues such as environmental and gender-based health and safety impacts.
Development priorities will have to shift dramatically to accommodate for the devastation COVID-19 is leaving behind. This presents long term consequences for the critical issues of menstrual hygiene, reproductive health, and sexual abuse prevention. These consequences will be especially felt by vulnerable groups like single mothers, poor households, and women with disabilities, who already experience chronic period poverty and its effects. Even if they do not fall victim to the virus, these groups will suffer from the lack of attention and priority governments and non-profits have been able to give to women’s health and safety concerns during lockdown. It is estimated that only 15% of girls in India had access to sanitary pads during the COVID-19 lockdown, because they relied on schools to provide a regular supply. I suspect this shift in priorities will only continue, as private and government organizations will need to divert money toward relief efforts in the coming months and years. The global economy is crippled and this makes philanthropy fundraising an even greater uphill task than it already is.
The coronavirus has been labeled by many as the great equalizer. And in the sense that it has inflicted itself upon the Hanks and Bachans of the world just as much as my neighborhood vegetable seller in Puducherry, this might be true. But it seems clear the global disparity will only get wider as the long-term effects of this pandemic rear its many ugly heads. There will be those who can stand up again, bruised and scraped, and those who reemerge permanently handicapped.
But I believe in a second effect too. I believe the collective grief and fear felt around the world from this invisible alien enemy can create empathy. The problem was no longer “over there”, “in that part of the world”, or “not in my town.” And perhaps this is will drive a greater sense of responsibility to the other citizens of the world. I hope to remember that this virus didn’t care if we lived with a manicured lawn or pile of trash in front of our homes. It crossed them all to break down our doors and threaten what was inside. I hope we remember that fear when it subsides, because many around the world will continue feeling that fear in the months and years to come. And they will need us to show up, extra sanitary napkin in hand.
Check out our collection of short stories Periods, Period.
For more insight on the realities of people who menstruate in India, check out our creative writing anthology, Periods, Period: Stories of Perseverance, Education, and Resilience. This collection of real and fictionalized stories, authored by myself and four other Clinton Fellow alumni, will take you all the way from the fisherwomen of Odisha to mothers in Puducherry to explore menstruation, resilience, and progress.