New Delhi, India – Concerned about a spike in COVID-19 infections in her gated community of Noida, a city bordering New Delhi, Plaksha Aggarwal wanted to help and started cooking for patients and their families.
After welcoming a few families to her apartment complex earlier this month, she started getting calls from across town.
“I couldn’t refuse people. They wouldn’t call if they didn’t need help. Some orders were for people who had just lost family members, ”she told Al Jazeera.
In one week, Aggarwal was preparing 120 meals a day.
“In isolation at home, having someone take care of your food or your kids’ meals because you can’t cook for them is just one less thing to stress,” she says.
Aggarwal is part of a growing community of home chefs, caring neighbors and Good Samaritans across India, helping to feed thousands of COVID-19 patients in isolation at home.
Wednesday was India’s deadliest day to date with 3,293 deaths from COVID recorded in the past 24 hours, bringing the toll to 201187. The country also reported 360,960 new cases, the highest total of one day in the world, bringing the total number of infections to nearly 18 million.
The devastating second wave of infections has engulfed health facilities in India, with hospitals across the country reporting a shortage of oxygen and beds.
Amid these shortages, thousands of people with the disease are forced to seek treatment at home.
Among the calls for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and plasma donors on social media, there are also offers from people wanting to cook daal chawal, India’s ubiquitous comfort food meal of lentils and of rice, for those who need it.
Home cooks and neighborhood groups come together to prepare and distribute hot meals while home chefs provide advice online on how to make simple quarantine meals.
Many process for free while others charge a nominal fee for a meal consisting of daal, rice, vegetables, and chapatis.
Roshni Nathan runs The Kitchen Table in the southern city of Hyderabad. She started cooking simple meals a week ago, along with her regular orders, for people in quarantine.
“I just wanted to do my part,” she told Al Jazeera. “Making curry and rice is virtually effortless.”
Nathan realized the need for simple food after observing several elderly couples in his apartment complex who were unable to cook while sick and were still hesitant to eat foods that were not cooked at home.
In the capital, New Delhi, more than 50,000 people are currently isolated.
In January, Kishi Arora, a food consultant and pastry chef, noticed that her customers were asking for modified menus.
“Some of them were asking for simple food, instead of the spicy and richer preparations that one usually chooses when ordering,” she said.
As of mid-March, orders have increased and Arora is now preparing 20 meals each for lunch and dinner for families in quarantine.
Most of these services started earlier this month when a brutal second wave of coronavirus infections began in India.
Loveleen Multani, a tourism professional from the southern town of Bengaluru, tested positive for COVID in March along with some of her family.
“You feel bad, you can’t taste anything and you are too weak to cook. There weren’t too many home cooked meal services back then, ”she said.
Multani eventually asked her friends to send her home cooked meals after her daughter got food poisoning from their daily restaurant takeout orders.
Browsing through his Instagram posts, Mumbai-based chef Saransh Goila noticed requests for food for quarantined families in different cities.
“I ignored the first ones, but as more came along, I realized that I had to do something. If I’m not using my reach and social media network to help me out, what’s the point of having them? Said Goila.
The next day, he began collecting details of those providing meals to COVID-19 patients at home.
“I expected only 20 to 25 prospects, but within days hundreds of people wanted to offer their services,” he told Al Jazeera.
Along with his family and several volunteers, he gathered information, verified their phone numbers, and manually entered details into a public spreadsheet, which quickly turned into a more research-friendly website to connect patients to. quarantine and meal providers.
Within a week, Goila’s initiative, which went viral on social media with the hashtag #CovidMealsforIndia, has around 1,500 meal providers in 50 cities.
Khusi Dugar, a businesswoman, is one of the listed vendors in Guwahati, the main city in the eastern state of Assam.
“I know how difficult it is to cope because some of my family have been through this recently,” she told Al Jazeera.
Despite struggling with irregular services and long pickup times by delivery partners, Dugar either transports a few orders directly to his neighborhood or connects people to other services in their area.
“Delivery partners need to help us, because many people like me want to help now.”
Home chef Sonali Chatterji says she cooks more than 100 meals a day in the northern state of Gurugram City in Haryana, a satellite city of New Delhi, like Noida.
She says she starts her day at 5:30 a.m. cooking and packing the orders with the help of her family. “I can cook more but there are a limited number of delivery people to carry the orders.”
Many juggle their daily work with cooking, like Sneha Senapati, a corporate social responsibility professional in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha state in eastern India.
“I get calls from people in the US or Bengaluru for their elderly parents in Bhubaneswar who find it difficult to feed themselves when they are isolated,” she says.
Senapati, who prepares an average of 15 meals a day, charges 50 rupees (nearly 70 cents) for a meal consisting of daal, rice and vegetables.
“It makes me happy to help someone with something so simple,” she told Al Jazeera.
Many meal providers say they continue to receive orders even after a person has tested negative because the fatigue lasts for several weeks.
For Aparna Garg, head of the city of Jaipur, Rajasthan, the pandemic has exposed the gender imbalance in housework and cooking.
“We get orders from families where the mother is sick and the rest of the family are unable to cope,” says Garg, who prepares more than 60 meals a day for patients and families in quarantine.
Shaheen Bhatnagar recently recovered from COVID-19 while in isolation at home with her husband in Gurugram. Although she relied on meals provided by friends and family, she also regularly ordered from a neighborhood home chef.
“When I asked her how much I owed her she said it was nothing and it was her duty to support us at a time like this. I was so touched by the gesture, ”says Bhatnagar.
While the work can be overwhelming, the meal providers say the feedback from the people they help keep them going.
Arora admits she is exhausted, both mentally and physically, with fatigue palpable over the phone when she talks about a friend’s passing hours earlier.
“It keeps me busy or I would be constantly anxious. The comments I get from people are worth it. “