How a volunteer group of cyclists fought COVID and delivered hope

A community-led courier service to protect the elderly, the disabled, and the isolating will be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. 

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At the peak of India’s second coronavirus wave, which saw hospitals overwhelmed and crematoriums inundated, venturing outside was a legitimate and serious risk. An unknown adversary stalked the air: COVID-19, but different.

The Delta variant – which has since become the dominant strain globally – first emerged in India in October of 2020, soon after India’s first lockdowns eased. And while Delta was new, the government’s response was similar to others around the world – reticence about plunging the nation back into lockdown. So Delta spread, its reproductive value taking it from one sick person to another five to eight in their orbit. 

By early May, India was inundated, with a seven day average of close to 400,000 diagnosed cases a day. A week or two later, the deaths spiked too – a long, mournful stretch of over 4,000 souls a day. Keep in mind that India is vast, and it is populous, and it is wracked with inequality – those numbers are just what there is data for

Those with resources – as has been the case globally – were better able to limit their exposure. But the elderly, and the disabled, and those who had COVID-19 but were unable to isolate, those were the people that needed to reduce their time out in the community. Finding a way to get essential supplies to these at-risk populations became a matter of life and death. 

Sathya Sankaran, who holds the honorary title of ‘Bicycle Mayor of Bengaluru’, has long known the power of bicycles. An energetic man in his mid-40s, he has led the Cycle to Work movement in Bengaluru (formerly, Bangalore) for three years and built a network of hundreds of volunteers. In the process, more than 150,000 kg of CO2 emissions were saved from the city’s skies. 

During India’s first wave, Sankaran’s group of cyclists – known as ‘Relief Riders’ – found themselves compelled to help, establishing a process where those in need could request a delivery using details on posters distributed around the streets.

Volunteers on the phones would triage the calls or requests via a Telegram chatbot, enter them into a Google Spreadsheet, and, via WhatsApp, assign deliveries to local riders.

Those riders – masked and socially distant – would collect medication or food supplies and leave them at the door of the recipients, in exchange for cash payment outside of the home.

In total, more than 250 vulnerable people were spared from needing to leave home and risk exposure during the first wave in Bengaluru. 

The movement of the Relief Riders through the community was not without its own risks, and not just from COVID. “Vehicle movements were banned in the city by the police,” Sankaran told CyclingTips. “Every volunteer would ask if their bicycle would be seized by the police if they were seen on the streets.” 

Although not operating by the letter of the law, Sankaran was confident that those in power would back the Relief Riders if it came to it. “We took a risk and it worked out … the city police commissioner [Bhaskar Rao] was a cyclist himself, and even though he was not aware of what we were doing I was confident he would have our back if someone needed to be bailed out.”

By the time infections began to drop and something approaching normality had returned, the Relief Riders’ processes were a well-oiled machine. But there was a storm on the horizon.

Looking at a graph of cases, the first wave looks like a blip in comparison to the second: a vast, steeply rising mountain of human suffering, peaking in May 2021.

The infrastructure of the Relief Riders was intact, and the need was greater than ever. The program quickly spread beyond Bengaluru – to Chennai, to Mumbai, to Hyberabad, to Delhi. In total, Relief Riders were operating in 12 cities during the second wave, their ranks swelling to 725 riders.

There was fear, but there was a desire to help, and amidst a backdrop of doom and gloom with the air choked by the smoke of funeral pyres, the simple bicycle became a beacon of hope: not on a vast scale, but at a human level. 

“Everyone’s thinking big – hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, ventilators, etc.,” Sankaran explained at the time. “Nobody’s thinking of groceries and regular medicines. But these items are not going to walk into your home. And we couldn’t let the older people step out for these.” 

To limit individual exposure to the virus, Sankaran tells CyclingTips, the administrative team would “give preference to the volunteer who has lesser rides so everyone gets to rotate their street presence and not over-expose.” 

Again, there was some risk of reprisals – the riders would mostly operate outside of curfew hours, balancing the consequences of this with the lower numbers of potential infectees out and about. Once a mission was completed, the rider would head home, sanitise, fill in a form to document their mission, share feedback and anecdotes with the team via WhatsApp, and await their next sortie. 

In total, Sankaran says, those 725 riders across 12 cities ran more than 2,000 missions in the second wave alone.

Plotted on the immense scale of Delta-ravaged India, that’s a relative drop in the ocean, but statistics don’t tell a human tale: parents, grandparents, sons and daughters saved by the deeds of a stranger from being exposed to something that might have killed them.  

The Relief Riders began getting attention in Indian media, and slowly the news of their good deeds made its way into the world, eventually to a Polish-American academic called Leszek Sibilski. Sibilski – the founder of World Bicycle Day, which was ratified by the United Nations in 2018 – was working to establish an annual award to, he tells CyclingTips, “empower cycling leaders at every possible level of our global society. These leaders need to be energised, enriched, and encouraged … we want to recognise those who are unsung heroes of our international community of bicycle enthusiasts.”

Alongside academics and advocates, the Relief Riders seemed an obvious inclusion. Sankaran’s group became 2021 Laureates of the UN’s World Bicycle Day Award.

Sathya Sankaran poses with his World Bicycle Day Award.

The power of the humble bicycle to bring change – not just to individual lives but, as Sibilski says, as “a loyal instrument of human transport”  – is often overlooked, but that is its superpower. 

The Relief Riders are a testament to that, and, thanks to a planned nomination for a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize – they’ll be put forth by two bike-loving academics; one Brazilian, one Taiwanese –  their humanitarian example could become a global one.

In a way, it already is.  

Update (29 November): The Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Sathya Sankaran and the Relief Riders has been formally lodged, with the Nobel Committee due to meet early next year to begin the process of selecting a short list. The final announcement of the winners will come in December 2022.

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