The Tibetan Response to Covid 19 by Karma Tensum

This has been an incredibly difficult year for people all over the world. Covid 19 has caused thousands of deaths, ruined the global economy, and derailed countless plans – both big and small. Like everyone else, the Tibetan community was also impacted: many suffered job or income loss, a Tibetan elder home got infected, students at different locations got stranded, and we could go on. Still, everything is relative, and when I sit down to compose this and think about its impact on our community, I almost get this sense that it did not hit us quite as hard compared to many others. Aside from our spiritual masters’ blessings, I think the fact that Tibetans have been adapting and adjusting to adversities for over half a century helped us cope just a little bit better.

More often than not, for Tibetans, our spiritual masters guide us during difficult times. This year too, His Holiness The Dalai Lama and the other great masters guided the community. As early as in March 2020, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote to Prime minister Narender Modi of India, expressing his support to the PM’s CARE fund. In addition to a donation from the Dalai Lama Trust, he also announced that his office staff would contribute one day’s salary towards that fund. For me, this was visible and tangible guidance by personal example, and this example was followed by many segments of the Tibetans in exile and in Diaspora.

The Tibetans began their response to this humanitarian crisis through their greatest strength – spirituality and prayers. Again, it was lead by the greatest and most revered of our spiritual masters. From his headquarters in Rajpur, India, His Holiness Sakya Trizin Rinpoche lived streamed via Face book the Parnashavari initiations to mitigate all sentient beings’ sufferings during this Covid 19 crisis. His Holiness the Karmapa broadcasted several days of precious teachings and initiations to pray for comfort and healing during the pandemic. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, gave a virtual Avalokiteshvara Empowerment and other precious teachings. All these events were followed online by millions of people all over the world.

In my circle at the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation, well-meaning friends of Tibet who have supported us over many years have often encouraged me to find more support from Tibetans, especially those who have done relatively well. Their feeling is that, at least for some Tibetans, it is time to give back. In a strange way, the pandemic brought out the best in us. Somehow the latent generosity and kindness in the Tibetans came to the surface. They showed that kindness and generosity need not be in lock down even if everything else is.

In India, the people most affected, the most vulnerable were those from the poorest segments of society – migrant workers being one example. Many of them live from hand to mouth. When the lock downs took place, their lives became immediately vulnerable. In the Tibetan settlement of Clement Town, where I come from, several of them work on construction projects within the colony. When the lock downs began to impact their lives, the community leadership garnered volunteers, collected food and other donations, and immediately started to help.  I followed this with mild appreciation from the other side of the globe. Then, as the weeks and months passed, what really impressed me is that they found the will and a way to continue. This was not a one-time show of support. I got this distinct impression that the community leadership was treating this vulnerable segment almost as an extended family, that in some way, it was their responsibility to help.

Much further west in Mt.Abu, Rajasthan, there is a small community of Tibetan sweater sellers. Some of my favorite cousins live here. About two months back, one of them proudly sent me images of this community giving back by contributing to the chief minister’s relief fund. In Vadodara, Gujarat, there is a larger community of Tibetan sweater sellers. Another cousin filled me in with news of what their community is doing to help. When my niece in Goa learned that I was working on this piece, she proudly volunteered information about what her community of traders were doing to help.

The trend is the same – all over India, Tibetan communities are finding joy in giving back, in doing something for those who are more vulnerable and more in need than themselves.  In 2019, the Tibetan community in exile coordinated a series of Thank You India events to express gratitude to the government and people of India for 50 years of support. There were gratitude speeches, cultural events, and other visible shows of appreciation. I believe that at a deeper and more meaningful level, the Tibetan response to the Covid 19 crisis has been an even more powerful way of showing our gratitude.

In New York, I saw the Tibetan community coming together in solidarity and support. Tibetan healthcare workers posted videos in our native Tibetan language explaining to the community how to stay safe. Tibetan nurses working in major NYC hospitals gave direct updates from their workstations, offering the best advice on getting medical help if needed. Tibetan lawyers and accountants posted videos and tutorials on filing for unemployment benefits and other resources to cope with the crisis.

This virus and the situation it created somehow woke up the latent generosity and even the goodness among our community. During this period, when people were compelled to stay home and reach to the Internet for entertainment and sanity, a host of Tibetan vloggers suddenly mushroomed. It seemed that many Tibetans were finding a fun and exciting medium to directly connect with Tibetan audiences and reach a modicum of fame and recognition through their vlogs.

Some of these were fun – like the Tibetan version of the popular Indian serial called the Roadies Show. But a great many of the Tibetan vlogs were focused on helping and giving. It was truly heart-warming. There was a young Tibetan man reaching out to destitute Indians living on the outskirts of the Tibetan community in Delhi. He had excellent camera skills, and we could follow him with admiration as he actively reached out, helped, and documented that through his vlogs. Another young Tibetan couple helped an Indian pedal rickshaw puller – bought him a brand new rickshaw that had the poor man in tears of gratitude. My favorite was a young Tibetan out of New York who did a touching GoFundMe campaign to help a nursing home way up there in Ladakh.

There’s not been that many good things to say about this year. Still, I think it was a good year, no, a great year to be a Tibetan vlogger. Many of them were forced to be at home, and they had a ready audience in other Tibetans similarly bored and online. I suspect that when things normalize, many of our young vloggers will have to go back to their jobs and may not have as much time. My best hope is that some of them make it – make it as vloggers and can do this full time. My best hope is that they will continue to focus on giving and fostering generosity.