Kindness In The Time Of Covid

From making face masks for hospitals to making music to entertain neighbours, the COVID-19 crisis is sparking countless acts of generosity. Here are stories from around the world

Tim Hulse Updated: Jan 6, 2021 13:33:22 IST
2021-01-06T13:33:02+05:30
2021-01-06T13:33:22+05:30
Kindness In The Time Of Covid A son hugs his father through protective plastic at the TrĂªs Figueiras care home in the city of Gravatai, Brazil. Photo: Lucas Uebel/Getty Images

Jaime Coronel is not a doctor or a nurse. He hasn’t saved any lives or invented a vaccine. He’s an ordinary member of the public. But in his own way, like many others around the world, he helped to improve the lives of others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Altruism takes many forms, as this year has shown, but it largely stems from a simple desire to help make things better. Indirectly, good deeds can also bring meaning to our lives in times of crisis and can make us feel a greater sense of connection with others, especially when we are starved of company. Jaime’s story is one of many examples. A technical architect, who runs his family removal company in Puertollano, Spain, Jaime was cleaning out the storage room at home in the early days of lockdown when he came across a fancy-dress costume of Olaf, the goofy snowman from the Walt Disney fantasy film Frozen.

“I thought to myself, ‘Let’s do some-thing silly,’” he says, laughing as he recalls the day. “So I put it on. And when my four-year-old daughter Mara saw me, she asked to put on her costume of Elsa, the princess in the film. We spent all day hanging out dressed as characters from Frozen.”

At the time in Spain, every evening at 8 p.m., people would go to their windows and balconies to clap and cheer the health workers putting their lives at risk on the frontline of the pandemic.

“I decided that this would be a good time to take out my garbage while still dressed as Olaf,” says Jaime. When he did, he received a rousing ovation from his neighbours. And so a tradition was born. Every day, just before 8 p.m. Jaime would take out the garbage wearing a different costume. One day he would be an Egyptian mummy, the next a dinosaur, or Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, or a robot or an Arab sheikh. He already had costumes from carnival and Halloween parties, and when they were exhausted, he ordered more online.

kindness-during-pandemic_1_010621011717.jpgJaime Coronel and his daughter Mara donned fancy-dress costumes when they put out their garbage during lockdown—much to their neighbours’ amusement. Photos via El País/© Jaime Coronel

Some were also donated to him by a company in Aragon and he even made some himself, with Mara and her grandmother, a former seamstress. Jaime did this for 29 days, and when lockdown rules were relaxed, allowing children to go outside, Mara joined him. The two dressed up together and made nine more trips. On the last day, local ambulance crews surprised Jaime by arriving to thank him for cheering people up, and they gave Mara some sweets. By this time, thanks to his Instagram posts, Jaime was known around the world and had helped to bring a smile to a global audience.

“People on social media thanked me for doing it and making people feel good, at least for a while,” says Jaime proudly. “Part of my motivation was my daughter and children in general,” he says. “They are fragile and don’t understand what is happening. My daughter didn’t want to go for walks, but she was happy to go out with her dad in costume.” Jaime hopes his actions helped other children to feel a little less scared about venturing into the outside world.

***

In France, two comedians took inspiration from the town criers of olden times to bring some warmth to the locked-down inhabitants of their apartment block in Lyon. Every evening the residents would gather on their balconies to hear Valéria Cardullo and Alex Repain announce requests for help, or birthday wishes or offer some puzzles to do. “When we started, we didn’t think it would have such a big impact, but after a while there was a real spirit of solidarity,” recalls Alex.

Elsewhere, music proved a popular means of raising the spirits. In Budapest, members of the MAV Symphony Orchestra drove two cars mounted with loudspeakers around the city and surrounding areas blasting out past performances for the benefit of those confined to home. In Vienna, American musician Olivia Haynes decided to strum her ukulele in her apartment window to bring some  light and fun into her neighbours’ lives. To her surprise, not only did she entertain them, but she also helped build a sense of community. “I love helping people come together, especially people who wouldn’t normally meet,” she says. As the days went on, some of her neighbours would come down to the courtyard just to listen to her play and afterwards they would chat together.

kindness-during-pandemic_2_010621012026.jpgOlivia Haynes took to playing her ukelele in her apartment window—and in doing so helped to foster a sense of community among her neighbours in Vienna. Photo: Olivia Haynes/Ali Ansari/fb.com/OliviaHaynessings

***

The pandemic also showed how ingenious we can all be given the chance. In particular, many people used their skills and imagination to create personal protective equipment for health-care workers. In the small city of Elda, northwest of Alicante, Spain, a group of women who stitch shoes at home for a living, switched to making thousands of masks for the nearby hospital. They used fabric provided by the hospital and rubber bands donated by a local business. Their efforts brought a flood of requests from groups wanting to do the same thing.

Even children joined in with creating vital protective equipment. In Ireland, 14-year-old Conor Jean and his 11-year-old brother Daire set up a small face-mask production line in their home in County Kildare using a 3D printer. They even incorporated special design features so that the masks could be worn more easily by a doctor or nurse in glasses or goggles.

Perhaps the most bonkers example of ingenuity came from Romanian shoemaker Grigore Lup, who unveiled a pair of size 75 shoes. The idea was that wearers would be forced to keep five feet apart from others and thus ensure social distancing. A pair takes the 55-year-old Transylvanian cobbler two days to make, using one square metre of leather.

***

A desire to care for the elderly, who are particularly at risk from the coronavirus, also got people thinking outside the box. Take Tristan Van den Bosch, for example, an operations manager at a cleaning and maintenance company in a suburb of Brussels. Driving to work one morning, he saw a man on the pavement shouting out to an elderly woman— his mother—three storeys up, in a care home. Like many senior citizens, she was unable to receive visitors because of the virus. Tristan thought to himself, We can help this man! 

Work had all but dried up at Tristan’s company, which meant it had cranes standing idle at the depot. Why not use those cranes to lift people up, so they can get closer to their loved ones? And so Tristan began driving around Belgium in his crane, bringing families to the windows of relatives on the upper floors of care homes. “OK, it cost us money,” Tristan says. “But in the end we’re happy that we were able to help people.”

In Brazil, staff at the Três Figueiras care home in Gravatai displayed similar ingenuity in creating an entirely new way to safeguard elderly residents when they received visitors. “We noticed that our senior residents were feeling sad,” says owner Luciana Brito. “And we thought they would be much happier if we found a way for them to hug their relatives.”

Inspired by a viral video showing a woman in America using a plastic curtain to hug her mother, Luciana and her colleagues created a Túnel do Abraço consisting of a large plastic sheet with arm holes, which was attached to one of the care home’s entrances. The arm holes also had plastic sleeves, allowing visitors to hold their loved ones without actually coming into direct contact with them. “It was so gratifying to see them hugging each other—and so important,” says the home’s administrator, Rubia Santos.

Another group particularly vulnerable to the pandemic was the homeless. In many places, public toilets were closed and homeless shelters temporarily shut down. Fewer people out and about meant fewer opportunities  to make a little money selling newspapers or making music. And as Wilhelm Nadolny, head of the soup kitchen for homeless people behind the Berlin Zoo railway station puts it, “How do you ‘stay at home’ when you’re homeless?”’ In Berlin, around 2,000 people officially live on the streets, although the figure is thought to be much higher. Nadolny’s kitchen had to close its doors, but continued to serve sandwiches and hot drinks through a window to the street.

***

Apart from dealing with the spiritual effects of isolation, lockdown brought with it other challenges. For some, making sure they had enough food was a serious issue—and no more so than for those living in Australia’s remote outback.

Gary Frost, who owns a roadhouse in the country’s Northern Territory, hit on perhaps the most extreme solution to the challenge of delivering food to those who needed it: Using his pilot’s licence, he decided to fly meals out to people locked down in cattle stations at no extra charge. “Nobody could go anywhere, so they were limited to how they got their food and refreshments. We make pizzas anyway, so we thought we would fly them out, so people didn’t have to leave their properties,” recalls Gary, a typical can-do Aussie, stressing that he didn’t do it as a commercial venture, but as “a friendly gesture to try and help people out”.

Young Parisian entrepreneur Maud Arditti was inspired by the experiences of her nearest and dearest to provide food for health workers. “A good number of my family and friends are doctors and work in hospitals,” she says. “I was talking to my aunt and discovered that hospital restaurants were often closed and five people could end up sharing a single plate of pasta.”

Maud began by making cakes, pizzas and small quiches for her local hospital, but soon realized she wouldn’t get far on her own. A call for help on social media garnered a remarkable response—in the end, around 1,600 helpers were making cakes all over Paris to be sent to hospitals. Soon Maud’s Vos Gâteaux (Your Cakes) initiative spread to other French cities.

kindness-during-pandemic_3_010621012255.jpgThe Vos Gâteaux initiative made cakes and pastries for health workers; word spread fast on social media and before long the idea was widely copied across France. Photos via ici.fr/@vosgateaux

“We were in a moment of standstill and I think there are three types of personalities in these moments,” reflects Maud. “Those who are a little paralyzed, those who criticize everything that’s done … and those who are not afraid and tell themselves they’ll give all their energy and available means, to be able to help. With our cakes, we could feed and bring some sweetness to all our hospitals.”

In Lisbon, a young Syrian couple, Ramia Abdalghani and Alan Ghumim, offered free food from their restaurant to local hospital workers. Having arrived in Portugal as refugees four years before, they were more than happy to help their new community.

“When you flee a war you feel the disaster, but you also realize who is there for you,” says Alan. “So in all things we do here in Portugal, we try to give back to the people who welcomed us with open arms.” One of those grateful hospital staff was nurse Nuno Delicado. “It was a big life lesson for all of us,” he says. “It showed us that as a society we must be there for each other.” 

***

When Valerie Martin, head of the Vilanova care home near Lyon in France, heard how those in homes all over Europe were suffering from the virus, she decided on drastic action. “I said to myself, ‘No. Not mine. My residents still have so much to live for,’” she says. Valerie’s answer was to completely close the building and invite staff and nurses to join her in what she expected to be a three-week quarantine period.

Some 29 employees volunteered for what turned into a marathon of 47 days and nights, with 12 employees remaining for the entire time. And it paid off. At the end of the stint, when the national average of new cases had fallen dramatically and the gates of Vilanova were unlocked, coronavirus tests came back negative for all 106 residents. The caregivers, who had named themselves ‘the happily confined’, left in a parade of cars, honking their horns on their way back to reunions with partners and children.

***

Perhaps the stories that will linger longest in the memory are those that involved great personal sacrifice for the benefit of others. Take 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari, for instance, who cycled 1,200 kilometres across India, carrying her disabled father on the back of her bike.

Their ordeal began in New Delhi, where her father, Mohan Paswan, earned a living driving an auto rickshaw before being injured and losing his job. All non-essential travel had been banned, but their landlord was demanding rent, which they couldn’t afford to pay, and he was threatening  to evict them, recalls Jyoti tearfully. So she decided the only course of action was for her and her father to spend their remaining money on a cheap bike and return to their home village in Darbhanga, Bihar.

kindness-during-pandemic_4_010621012438.jpgDriven by necessity, Jyoti Kumari cycled from Delhi back to her family’s village, a distance of 1,200 kilometres, carrying her disabled father as a passenger. Photo via Indian Express

Jyoti pedalled for 10 days in searing temperatures, living on food and water given by strangers. For two days, there was only enough for her father and she had to remain hungry. “It was a difficult journey,” she says now with great understatement. “The weather was hot, but we had no choice. I had only one aim in mind—to reach home.”

By the time the pair finally reached their destination, news had spread and Jyoti had become famous. But fame was the last thing on her mind when she began the journey. “It was a decision taken in desperation,” she says.

***

The potential of a simple gesture to capture the public’s imagination in a time of crisis was illustrated when 99-year-old British army veteran Captain Tom Moore decided to raise some money for health workers and patients.

Inspired by the excellent treatment he had received in hospital for skin cancer and a broken hip in 2018, in early April he pledged to complete 100 laps of his garden, using his walking frame for support, before his 100th birthday later that month. His aim was to raise a modest £1,000. But news of Captain Tom’s efforts soon reached the ears of a nation through newspapers and TV features. He even teamed up with the singer Michael Ball and a health-workers’ choir to record a charity version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (the famous anthem of Liverpool foot-ball club), becoming the oldest person ever to top the charts in the UK.

kindness-during-pandemic_5_010621012555.jpgCaptain Tom Moore set out to raise £1,000 for health charities by walking 100 laps of his garden. In the end, he raised £33 million. Photo: Reuters/Peter Cziborra

On 16 April, Captain Tom completed his 100 laps ahead of schedule, having raised more than £17 million. “I never dreamt I would be involved in an occasion such as this,” he announced. But the Captain-Tom mania showed no sign of abating. By the time he reached his 100th birthday on 30 April, he had raised nearly £33 million. He was honoured with a fly-past by Britain’s air force, and the public sent more than 1,50,000 birthday cards. His response? “To all those people who are finding it difficult at the moment … the sun will shine on you again, and the clouds will go away.”

In honour of his achievement, Captain Tom was promoted to the rank of Honorary Colonel, granted the Freedom of the City of London and awarded a knighthood on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The money he raised was used to provide comfort and care for National Health Service workers. “I’ve never been someone that’s sat around,” he laughs, adding that he enjoyed the challenge. He believes the secret for his success—and his long life—is simple: “It’s all about having the right mindset. You’ve got to be optimistic and to think that things will get better.”

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