Goodwill haunting: The trauma of being a volunteer

When covid started taking a toll on Bengaluru, Zameer Baig quickly signed up to help with burials etc. But the scenes that he encounters every day have exacted a huge cost

A few months ago, Zameer Baig, 29, was running his father’s business, manufacturing corrugated boxes. He had a regular 10-to-6 job, after which he would go to the gym, hang out with his friends and come home to his wife and two children aged 5 and 3. Like most kids, they would run into his arms, chatter nineteen-to-the-dozen, update him about the many events in their day and fall asleep next to him. He and his wife would have a quiet dinner and watch TV, before calling it a day. He had a life that most Bengalureans would identify with – mundane but secure, happy and content.

From about a month, Baig’s life has changed so drastically that he sometimes can’t recognise it’s his own. Ever since he started volunteering to help with covid burials as a Mercy Angels’ volunteer, he is haunted by the recurring sounds of a youth’s sobs. The young boy’s face is contorted by grief at seeing his sister, a pregnant woman, dead from covid in her third trimester. The tiny life in her, an eight-month-old foetus, did not survive either. As Baig and another volunteer wheeled her body out of the Vanivilas Hospital morgue, the young boy’s frail body was wracked by sobs.

Baig could do nothing. Not even hug the boy who did not have a PPE. The boy cried, a deep guttural cry that rose from his stomach and shook his frame. He clutched on to a sheaf of documents to calm himself.

We cannot share the trauma, which we go through as volunteers, with our families. I think our fellow volunteers will be able to understand better. Though there are helplines available, I didn’t feel like calling them for counselling

— Zameer Baig, Mercy Angels volunteer

This was on July 21 but when Baig sleeps the sobs are still real, fresh and loud. He wakes up emotionally drained. That he sleeps alone, isolating from his family, makes things worse. Images of another covid death, of a 70-year-old man, have also made indelible memory traces. He remembers the son of the man, refusing to even see his father’s face one last time because he was so consumed by fear. Baig had gone to Columbia Asia Hospital in Yeshwanthpura on July 17 to ferry the body to the Magadi Road crematorium. Baig says he’s disheartened that a virus can wipe away the love between a father and son and replace it with fear.

“When someone dies, the family members do not come forward to even wrap the body. They stand at a distance and expect us to handle the dead. It’s just heart breaking. Covid has changed everything.”



Baig has done what the family members of the dead don’t do – accompanied the dead on their last journey and given them a dignified burial /cremation.

Baig says he consoles himself, tries to hush the sobs in his head and hopes sleep will take over. He didn’t think he would be waging these midnight battles when he decided to volunteer after he read a call by the Mercy Angels – ‘Calling out the young, the fit and the strong. One day in a week, few hours. Let’s give the deceased a dignified cremation or burial. It could be one of us tomorrow!’

When Baig comes homes, there are no hugs and no chatter of his kids. He goes straight to the bath and scrubs himself clean, soaks his clothes in soap water and Dettol. After dinner, he lies down on his bed and hope the demons don’t came to haunt him.

The taunts he hears during the day are worse than the demons that come at night. “I’m often asked ‘are you the only one meant to do these things, while others, including the family of the deceased, stay away from their loved ones?’” Zameer has no answers for his family but he continues with his work, hoping that his family’s support will continue.



“We cannot share what we go through as volunteers with our families. I think our fellow volunteers will be able to understand better. Though there are helplines available, I didn’t feel like calling them for counselling,” says Baig.

Speaking of the trauma and stress the volunteers will experience, Bangalore Medical College (BMC) Psychiatrist, Dr Chandrashekar said, “They will experience all the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – grief, anxiety, insomnia, depression, recurring thoughts and images of what they saw and heard. But since these people are volunteers, they are more resilient that people who are obligated to work. These volunteers will be able to face stigma, fear of transmitting the illness to others, and discrimination, better than others because they have chosen to volunteer. They need to have a good night’s rest, good nutrition, physical activity and interaction with their families while maintaining distance. They should look at this as a marathon and not a sprint; prepare mentally and emotionally for the long haul. They should look out for nightmares, loss of appetite, feeling low, irritability, fatigue, loss of interest in things that would excite them…”

If the feeling persists or gets worse, seeking professional help is advised, says experts.

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Sagar Biswas

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