Arun Kumar is DEF’s digital footsoldier/volunteer from Chennai who is working towards fighting fakenews, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy and making more people aware about COVID-19.
By Abner Manzar
“These kids don’t have access to digital devices, I have been trying to support these 8 families here by raising funds with my friends to distribute food to them every couple of weeks but I don’t know how to support them in their education” said a 24-year-old Arun Kumar. It was heartening to see the effort he was putting to support a group of families who are facing political, social and economic exclusion due to their nature of work.
Arun joined the UNICEF-supported “Risk Communication & Community Engagement” (RCCE) program of DEF in September 2021 and he has been working regularly on spreading awareness about COVID-19 and how to stay safe. Arun has been visiting this group of families who belong to a gypsy community of Tamil Nadu. “They have been living here for the past 50 years, to earn money they take their bulls and go door-to-door visiting people and asking the bull to bless them. In return for that, people give them some money” said Arun. He also added that the income of course never seems to be enough and they seem to remain in perpetual poverty without any rights whatsoever. I was wondering how this community had survived for such a long time when I saw their living conditions. They have small temporary huts they call home and there is trash lying all around the place.
As we walked towards their huts the dogs living there started barking but as they saw that we were not a threat to the residents they stopped. Arun went and approached one of the men and told him that today we would be witnessing the community meeting, he smiled and agreed. Then Arun went to gather all the children playing around and told them to come closer so that he could speak to them. A few of the adults also came and stood around. Before starting the meeting Arun distributed masks to everyone and asked them to wear them properly. Arun started the meeting by addressing the children, asking them what they remember from what he told them last week. One of the girls Chitra responded, she said “we should wear a mask at all times, we should maintain 2 kilometers distance from each other and we should take the vaccine.” Arun smiled at her and said “very good, except that it’s 2 meters and not 2 kilometers”, embarrassed, she laughed it off. Arun then went on, “it is very important to take the vaccine also because of the nature of your work, you are visiting many people so you are at a higher risk.”
Arun continued to speak to them about COVID appropriate behavior (CAB) while I observed the meeting. After the meeting Arun opened his bag and took out some biscuit packets he had got to distribute to the children. I sat down to speak with Arun after that about his relationship with the community and he said that he feels very attached to them as he has been working with them for a long time. I told him to think about what can be done for the upliftment and empowerment of this community. He was very excited to do something about it and said he would think about it and get back to me.
The children go to a government school and have been receiving education though with regular interruptions as whenever classes go online they are unable to access education as they don’t have any digital devices. We are now planning to help them gain access to digital tools so that they can gain some practical knowledge that will help them find a job and get out of the cycle of poverty their families have been in for generations.
People like Arun make me want to continue the work that I am doing. Connecting Arun to the RCCE program has helped him reach out to communities that he knew were in need of COVID awareness. There is a light in his eyes when he speaks about helping people and we at DEF are hoping to enable and empower him further so that his passion to help people connects with our mission to support people and together we can work towards the empowerment of several communities.
In the meantime, I took it as an actionable task for myself to ensure that DEF provides this gypsy community with digital devices so that their children access regular education and meaningful engagements.
Abner Manzar is part of DEF’s Media and Communications team. A filmmaker and writer, he is traveling across DEF’s clusters to document the impact that DEF has had in those regions.