Updated: Apr 30
New Delhi: Ifrah Fatima, 26, an MBBS graduate in Hyderabad was “doomscrolling Twitter” on 18 April, feeling “utterly helpless” about India’s Covid-19 emergency, when an idea struck her. She posted on Instagram, asking medic friends if they would be willing to be part of a pro bono tele-consultation initiative.
Count-me-in messages poured in and, within a day, a group of more than 20 doctors had come together to advise mild Covid-19 patients and guide them on treatment and monitoring symptoms. In the first week, they logged over a thousand calls from across India.
As India faces its worst-ever Covid emergency, citizens like Fatima are pitching in generously—a baker in Hyderabad sends free brownies to anyone donating plasma, an auto-rickshaw driver in Ranchi gives free rides to patients, a mental health start-up is offering free counselling.
One of the earliest examples of this was the story of Shahnawaz Sheikh, 31, who sold his Ford Endeavour SUV for Rs 22 lakh in 2020 to buy oxygen cylinders for Covid-19 patients. More famously, Pyare Khan, a transport and logistics company owner from Nagpur, donated Rs 85 lakh to ensure supply and movement of oxygen in his region.
Fatima, who was preparing for her postgraduate exams said, “the idea was to try and ensure that people with mild symptoms do not come to already overburdened hospitals. In a lot of cases, we saw the patients rushing to hospital the moment they tested positive”.
Fatima’s group also helped dispel misinformation. “After speaking to people,” she said, “we realized that certain things, which seemed so simple to us—such as how to use a pulse oximeter or even the value of normal body temperature—meant the world to them.”
The most rewarding part of the initiative, she added, was that “every call and message ends with a May-God-Bless-You or You-are-a-Hero”.
A Collapse Of Government
As India battles a particularly virulent surge in Covid-19 cases with active cases crossing 300,000—on 28 April, the country recorded over 379,000 new cases, the most in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic—the country’s healthcare infrastructure was close to collapse.
Reports of makeshift funeral pyres outside crematoria, on pavements and parks; lines of ambulances waiting to enter hospitals; overburdened labs taking upwards of four days to return RT-PCR tests for suspected patients; Covid-19 patients and their kin begging for a hospital bed or drugs or plasma for treatment; and hospitals taking to social media to report their dwindling oxygen supplies make for what World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom recently called “beyond heartbreaking”.
The deadly second wave comes over a year after the pandemic first struck. In January this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared: “We have not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the pandemic.”
In March, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan announced that the country was in the “endgame” of the pandemic. From January 2021, India had begun exporting vaccines.
By the middle of March, election campaigning was in full swing in five states while over 130,000 mostly unmasked fans settled down to watch two international cricket matches in Gujarat and a few million gathered from 12 April for the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, Uttarakhand.
Soon after, infections began to soar, and India became the world’s leading Covid-19 hotspot, even though it became apparent that the number of those stricken or dead were being under-reported.
‘No Deed Greater Than Saving A Life’
Civil society has been the only bright spark as tens of thousands of ordinary people helped by amplifying leads, working the phones, filtering information on social media, confirming it, and relaying it to those who need it.
Whether locating vacant hospital beds, helping patients procure drugs, plasma donors, an oxygen filling plant or even meals and transportation services, or offering mental health services, many stepped up to fill in the gaps of the missing State.
Zuber Kassar, 22, and his cousins, Shahid and Waseem are dealers in compressors of air-conditioners and refrigerators and run a shop, Waseem Gases, in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, which became famous for the women-led anti-CAA sit-in between December 2019 and March 2020. While the shop mostly refills gas in compressors, it also stocks oxygen to refill cylinders for medical purposes.
Earlier, they filled two to four oxygen cylinders a day, but over the past two weeks, they fillied “scores” everyday, said Zuber.
“People come wailing in the middle of the night, elderly people come with folded hands …I have never seen such a situation. We do our best to help them,” said Zuber. “Earlier we used to refill a cylinder for Rs 200. But now we are doing it for Rs 150, which is what it costs us.”
“Many times people don’t have money, for they have exhausted it all in the treatment, and we refill it for free,” said Zuber. “Kisi ki jaan bach jaye, isse bada kya hai (No deed greater than saving someone’s life).”
The spike in demand for oxygen has resulted in the brothers doing many more runs to the oxygen plant, taking turns to sleep so that service remains uninterrupted. In the first few days, they kept the shop open round the clock, but with people now queuing up at oxygen plants itself, they too are unable to procure large quantities of oxygen and, so, they open the shop only when they have supplies.
Still, people continue to flock to the shop and the brothers are deluged with calls and messages, said Zuber. “One morning Waseem’s wife was rousing him for sehri (the pre-dawn meal Muslims have in Ramzan) and he turned to her and mumbled in his sleep: ‘Bhai oxygen nahin hai, khatam ho gayi. (Brother, there is no oxygen in stock’.)”
International charity Khalsa Aid, which has been providing humanitarian aid in disaster hit areas and civil conflict zones for two decades, is distributing free oxygen concentrators to Covid-19 patients. Those who reach out to the organization are given a form seeking medical details of the patient. A team of volunteers then categorises the forms on the basis of need and urgency, while another purchases and delivers them free of cost to the patients.
“We have served in many affected areas but none like this. The situation is so heartbreaking,” said Gurpreet Singh, 28, an administrator at Khalsa Aid India. “Once, our team called up a number from the form and the voice at the other end said the person had passed away 10 minutes ago.”
“Often, our team that delivers concentrators has found old people living all alone, with nobody to look after them. We feel so helpless in those moments, even guilty for being able to do so little,” he added.
Likewise, volunteers from Hemkunt Foundation, guided by the Sikh principle of sarbat da bhalla (welfare for all), are distributing free oxygen cylinders.
On 25 April, YouTube entertainer Ashish Chanchlani posted on Twitter that he and a few others did a fundraiser, the proceeds of which—amounting to Rs 5 million—would go to Hemkunt Foundation.
In Ghaziabad’s Indirapuram, a Gurudwara has started an “oxygen langar” from 23 April, and is providing oxygen to those who have failed to get admission in a hospital. Its volunteers claim to be helping at least 400 people everyday.
“One Doesn’t Even Get Time To Mourn A Death”
The feeling of helplessness has birthed acts of kindness everywhere. Ashok Kumar Pandey, 46, a writer, used his Twitter following of 29,000 followers to create a virtual control room with 250 volunteers and 40 doctors.
Upon receiving distress calls on their helpline, they made calls to hospitals, drug stores, district authorities, other volunteer groups, and informed the person where their requirement could be met. The group has five teams that deal with requests of oxygen cylinders, ICU beds, medicines, plasma, and doctor consultations separately. But now, they have shut the helpline and created a website in its place.
“Sadly, many of our efforts are reaching a dead-end now. There is no ventilator available in Delhi since 23 April, and no ICU bed since 25 April,” said Pandey. “The government must step in and shoulder its responsibility.” He said his team was fielding 3,000-5,000 calls everyday.
“One doesn’t even get time to mourn a death,” he added.
The dead also require support and service in these unprecedented times. Often the family members of the deceased are themselves Covid-19 positive and there is nobody to perform the last rites. During the first wave last year, there were occasions when even family members didn’t step forward to perform the rituals for fear that they might contract the infection. Imdad Imam and his friends in Lucknow have been burying and cremating such bodies for over a year now.
“When the pandemic had just begun, I received a message around midnight saying that a young boy has been sitting with his father’s body outside a graveyard for the past three to four hours and there’s nobody to help him. I asked my friends if we should go and they immediately responded in the affirmative,” recalled 33-year-old graphic designer Imam.
The group conducted some 50 funerals in 2019. And since the second wave struck, they are doing 2-3 funerals everyday.
In Bangalore, Miti Desai, a 40-year-old designer and her friend Piyush are finding ways to provide free food to Covid-19 patients. Calling the effort Recipe of Hope, Miti and Piyush started by cooking and sending meals to a handful of people—recipients only had to pay for the delivery service. As the demand grew, the duo reached out to people and asked them to volunteer as cooks. It’s been barely a week since they expanded and by 25 April, over 20 volunteers were already serving 76 people.
“We don’t want to burden anybody. If every volunteer can cook one or two or three extra meals, that serves our purpose,” said Desai, adding that they were trying to organize distribution so that a request from a place reaches the nearest volunteer cook, thereby saving time and reducing charges of delivery service.
Help From The New Media
In a resource-poor situation, information is key. A group of Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi alumni have launched a non-profit app that helps track hospital beds, plasma and ambulance availability by city by aggregating any and all kinds of verified leads. Within two days, the app had over 200,000 downloads.
“Anybody with a medical requirement can use our app to post a message on social media, and it immediately reaches the volunteer army of Covid Survivor Force, a group with whom we have collaborated,” said Milan Roy, a co-developer, adding that the app is continuously growing as sections for more cities—it had 30 on 28 April—are being added to it.
Others, such as social-media influencer Rasna Bhasin, 28, who has over 92,000 followers on Instagram, decided to suspend all brand promotion ever since India hit “crisis mode” on 19 April.
“I thought why not use my decent following to amplify patient requests?” said Bhasin. In a couple of days it became clear that patients simply lacked the emotional and physical bandwidth to deal with the deluge of unverified numbers and resources being posted on social media.
Since amplification was not enough, within a few days Rasna and her group of 18 all-women volunteers, Seva Sisters, ranging in age from 22 to 38, worked phones, searched for hospital beds, called chemists for medicines and helped find oxygen suppliers.
On the night of 25 April, when Dipika, a Delhi woman with symptoms of Covid-19 went into labour, her panicked husband appealed for help on Twitter. “She had been turned away from one hospital and her husband was desperately driving her around looking for where she could give birth,” said Rasna.
The Seva Sisters picked up the SOS from the husband, and a team of four—Jayati Modi, Noor Sethi, Mehak Singhal and Priyanka Khokker (not associated with Seva Sisters*)—got on the phone, calming him down through the panic, checking on hospitals where they could go for the delivery, connecting them to a gynaecologist to talk to them through the labour and, finally, getting the wife admission to a hospital at 1.30 am on 26 April.
Khokker, a 26-year-old UPSC aspirant, decided to abandon caution and along with her brother, went out at night to four different hospitals looking for a bed. Finally, an acquaintance, Shatakshi Sharma informed her that one bed was still available at Deendayal Upadhyay Hospital. Khokhar first went to the hospital to verify that the bed was indeed available and then informed the couple—the wife had by then been in labour for 12 hours—to rush there.**
At about 4 pm that afternoon, a healthy baby boy was born.
(Salik Ahmad is a Delhi-based independent journalist)
* Clarification: Priyanka Khokker has clarified that she is not associated with Seva Sisters and helped in the delivery of a baby on the night of 25 April in her individual capacity and not as a part of the group.
** This story has been updated on 30 April after speaking to Priyanka Khokker to include new details of the birth of the baby.
Seva Sisters @rasnabhasin on Instagram