New Delhi, India – Concerned by a spike in COVID-19 infections in her gated community in Noida, a city bordering New Delhi, Plaksha Aggarwal wanted to help and started cooking for the patients and their families.
After catering to a few families within her apartment complex earlier this month, she started getting calls from around the city.
“I could not refuse people. They wouldn’t be calling unless they needed help. Some orders were for people who had just lost family members,” she told Al Jazeera.
Within a week, Aggarwal was preparing 120 meals a day.
“While in-home isolation, having someone take care of your food or your kids’ meals because you cannot cook for them is just one less thing to stress about,” she says.
Aggarwal is a part of a growing community of home chefs, caring neighbours and good Samaritans across India helping to feed thousands of COVID-19 patients in home isolation.
Wednesday was India’s deadliest day yet with 3,293 COVID deaths recorded in the past 24 hours, carrying the toll to 201,187. The country also reported 360,960 new cases, the world’s largest single-day total, taking the total tally of infections to nearly 18 million.
The devastating second wave of infections has overwhelmed India’s healthcare facilities, with hospitals across the nation reporting a shortage of oxygen and beds.
Amid such shortages, thousands of people down with the disease are forced to seek treatment at home.
Among pleas for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and plasma donors on social media, there are also offers by people willing to cook daal chawal, India’s ubiquitous comfort meal of lentils and rice, for those who need it.
Home cooks and neighbourhood groups are banding together to prepare and distribute hot meals while home chefs are providing online tips on how to prepare simple meals while in quarantine.
Many are catering for free while others are charging a nominal fee for a meal 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 bit,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s hardly any effort to make some curry and rice.”
Nathan realised the need for simple nourishment after observing several elderly couples in her apartment complex who were unable to cook while sick and still hesitant to eat food that was not home-cooked.
In the capital, New Delhi, more than 50,000 people are currently in home isolation.
In January, Kishi Arora, a food consultant and pastry chef, noticed that her clients were requesting altered menus.
“Some of them were asking for simple food, instead of the spicy and richer preparations that one usually chooses when ordering in,” she said.
By mid-March, orders increased and Arora is now cooking 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 started in India.
Loveleen Multani, a tourism professional in the southern city of Bengaluru, tested positive for COVID in March along with some of her family members.
“You feel awful, you can’t taste anything and you’re too weak to cook. There weren’t too many homemade meal services at the time,” she said.
Multani finally asked her friends to send her home-cooked food after her daughter got food poisoning from their daily restaurant take-out orders.
Scrolling through his Instagram messages, Mumbai-based chef Saransh Goila noticed requests for food for quarantined families in different cities.
“I ignored the first few, but as more came in, I realised I had to do something. If I don’t use my social media reach and network to help, what is the use of having them?” said Goila.
The next day, he began to crowdsource the details of those offering meals to COVID-19 patients at home.
“I was only expecting 20 to 25 leads, but within days we had hundreds of people wanting to offer their services,” he told Al Jazeera.
Along with his family and several volunteers, he collated information, verified their phone numbers and manually entered details into a public spreadsheet, which quickly transformed into a more search-friendly website to connect quarantined patients and meal providers.
Within a week, Goila’s initiative, going viral on social media with the hashtag #CovidMealsforIndia, has approximately 1,500 meal providers across 50 cities.
Khusi Dugar, a businesswoman, is one of the providers listed in Guwahati, the main city in the eastern state of Assam.
“I know how hard it is to cope as some of my family members went through this recently,” she told Al Jazeera.
Despite struggling with erratic services and lengthy pick-up times by delivery partners, Dugar transports a few orders directly within her neighbourhood or connects people to other services in their area.
“Delivery partners need to help us as there are many people like me who want to help right now.”
Home chef Sonali Chatterji says she is cooking more than 100 meals a day in the northern state of Haryana’s Gurugram city, a satellite city of New Delhi, like Noida.
She says she starts her day at 5:30am to cook and package orders with the help of her family. “I can cook more but there are a limited number of delivery people to transport the orders.”
Many are juggling their day jobs with cooking, like corporate social responsibility professional Sneha Senapati in Bhubaneswar, the capital of the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
“I get calls from people in the US or Bengaluru for their elderly parents in Bhubaneswar who are struggling with food while in isolation,” she says.
Senapati, who cooks an average of 15 meals a day, charges 50 rupees (almost 70 cents) for a meal 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 tests negative as the fatigue lasts for several weeks.
For Aparna Garg, a chef in the city of Jaipur, Rajasthan, the pandemic has exposed the gender imbalance in housework and cooking.
“We receive orders from families where the mother is ill and the rest of the family members are unable to cope,” says Garg, who cooks more than 60 meals a day for quarantined patients and families.
Shaheen Bhatnagar recently recovered from COVID-19 while in-home isolation with her husband in Gurugram. Though she relied on meals provided by friends and family, she also ordered regularly from a neighbourhood 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.
Though the work can be overwhelming, the meal providers say feedback from people they help is keeping them going.
Arora admits she is exhausted, both mentally and physically, the fatigue palpable over the telephone as she mentions a friend passing away a few hours earlier.
“This keeps me busy or I would be constantly anxious. The feedback I get from people makes it worthwhile.”