New Delhi: Muchkund Kumar ‘Monu’ had all the symptoms of COVID-19, but he had not yet underwent an RT-PCR test confirming the disease. After he complained breathlessness, the 38-year-old, a resident of Simaria, the village of renowned Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ in Bihar’s Begusarai district, was rushed to a local hospital by his relatives, which referred him to Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH) — a dedicated COVID-19 care facility in the state capital.
Instead of PMCH, his family took him to Patna’s All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) where they had made arrangements for a bed. But he was allegedly denied admission there because he lacked the RT-PCR test report, his relative told NewsClick.
Despite his attendants urging the hospital authorities for over an hour to admit him, it was to no avail. Lying in an ambulance all the while in the AIIMS compound, Monu’s blood oxygen saturation dipped to as low as 70, the relative added.
He was taken back to the PMCH, where except oxygen support, he did not get any other medical support such as medicines or rushing him to intensive care unit (ICU) for non-invasive ventilation with BiPAP, his relative alleged.
Since he needed to be put on BiPAP, which was not available in the general COVID-19 ward of the ‘premier’ hospital, a group of volunteers from the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya’s alumni group made available an NIV mask and oxygen cylinders for him who himself was an alumnus of the prestigious institution.
But it was too late. The young teacher of history at DAV Public School in Begusarai passed away on April 18.
This incident prompted Ranjan Jha, a member of the JNV alumni group who along with others extended all possible help to Monu, to form a group to volunteer patients in need during the second and deadlier wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
Taking lessons from the horrible incident, the marketing strategist with a multinational firm on April 19 created ‘JNV COVID Helpline’ WhatsApp group, which now has around 80 people, comprising at least 48 doctors, among others. They all are alumni of JNV.
“The unfortunate incident made me realise that one would not get medical treatment if he or she does not have an RTPCR report. It also taught me a lesson that several times patients are left abandoned in the absence of basic medical assistance, at times leading to their deaths. It was an opportune moment for us to stand with the people, who funded our education at the government-run JNV. So, I created the group,” he said.
“Most of the doctors in the group are based in the state. Additionally, the group has some journalists, academicians and professionals of different fields. The group was primarily dedicated to those associated with the JNV, but later it was open to serve all. I also publicised about the group on social media platforms so that more and more people can reach out to us,” Jha told NewsClick.
He added that apart from doctors and volunteers, he also received help from a number of bureaucrats who are also alumni of JNV . Upon arranging beds in government and private hospitals, oxygen cylinders, BiPAP and medicines for patients across the state, he reached a conclusion that a large number of infected patients can be treated at home if they are provided the necessary medical care.
“By the first week of May, we started getting around 100-150 phone calls per day. After deliberations, we decided to minimise hospitalisation and not let people panic. We utilised the doctors in our alumni group who happily agreed for telephone consultation. We worked in great coordination, provided medical care to mild and even moderate patients at home with the help of specialist doctors, arranged medicines and oxygen cylinders for them with the help of district administration, journalists and influential academics of our group. Hospital admissions were only for those who were serious and really needed it,” he said.
He added they had prepared a list of patients who were being treated at home. Such patients, he claimed, used to be attended twice a day by the team of doctors they have. There was a virtual medical board where cases would be discussed everyday by a dedicated team of experts, he added.
Though majority of the work was restricted to online mode, yet there were volunteers who were working offline when it was required. “We organised several sessions of e-training for them to ensure they serve people safely without risking their lives. We repeatedly urged them to make full use of the social media and contacts through phones and venture out only in case it was extremely needed. Patients’ attendants, too, were trained online on how to handle medical equipment,” he said.
Jha claimed that the doctors in the group looked after around 5,000 patients. Of them, 2,000 patients were serious. “We got 100 patients admitted. Of the total 5,000 patients, we failed to save 50. Rest of them recovered and are doing fine,” he said, talking about the success that they have achieved so far.
He specially thanked Dr Hari Mohan of PMCH, Dr Rajiv Kumar — senior resident at Patna’s Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Science (IGIMS), Dr Abhijit of the Nalanda Medical College and Hospital (NMCH) in Patna, Dr Sumit — who is pursuing DM cardiology from SMS Medical College in Rajasthan’s Jaipur, Dr Vikas — who serves at Paras Hospital in Patna and also does his private practice, Kavita — a programme officer with the Government of Bihar, Shweta — a journalist based in Ghaziabad, Professor Akhilesh Kumar — who teaches Zoology at Patna Science College, among others.
‘I KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE HUNGRY’
Ghalib Kaleem from Patna, who owns a tourism business in Andaman, was stuck in the island along with his 42 employees during last year’s lockdown. He said that they survived for one-and-a-half months on the grocery items that they had in stock as the only ration shop on the island had run out of stock.
Following this, Kaleem said, they survived on several leafy vegetables found in the mountain forests. “We used to bring different kind of saag (leafy vegetables) from the nearby mountain forest to eat. During the low tide at night, we would go to the sea for fishing. This is how we survived the previous lockdown there,” he added.
During this wave of the pandemic, the man in his late 30s contracted the virus and fell ill. After his blood oxygen saturation began falling, he was admitted to a private hospital in Patna where he did not get anything to eat for close to 20 hours.
These two incidents helped him realise how difficult it is to survive without food. After his recovery and discharge from the hospital, he decided to help the underprivileged, who are forced to sleep hungry, and those who have lost their jobs during the lockdown, with ration and cooked food.
“At a time when the health infrastructure collapsed and the government’s tall claims stood exposed, hundreds and thousands of people were trying their best to address the medical needs of the masses. The thing that I found missing was addressing the basic need of food. Since I had experienced the pain of hunger, I decided to distribute ration as much as I can despite going through the after effects of COVID-19,” Kaleem said.
Explaining how he began the initiative, he told NewsClick, “I put up a Facebook post in this regard, and financial help began pouring in. Within hours, I got over a lakh rupees. I procured a good quantity of rice, chooda (flattened rice), wheat flour, onion, potato and edible oil with the amount I received. But the next challenge before me was the absence of a place for storage and team of volunteers to help me in packing and distribution.” Later he said, he handed over the food items to the workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) were already distributing food kits to the needy.
The financial aid continued coming in. After he managed to constitute his own team as scores of slum dwellers came forward to volunteer, he bought the next consignment of ration and started the distribution in slums, on road side and even among people who do not come forward to seek help despite being in need because of their self-respect.
As Bihar witnessed strong winds and moderate rain fall as an impact of Yaas cyclone, the need to serve destitute with cooked food increased. Kaleem with his team surveyed several areas and set up community kitchens in several areas to help the maximum number of people. “The distribution of cooked food and ration,” he said, “is still going on.”
Meanwhile, the government, which was duty bound to take care of its people in this testing time, has instead focussed on allegedly hounding such volunteers. The on-ground volunteers are facing all sorts problems and obstacles allegedly created by the police administration in the name of effectively implementing lockdown.
“It was perhaps not enough that people were completely abandoned and left at the mercy of the God. The government does not want even the civil society to carry out relief, apparently because it brings a bad name to authorities. Despite our repeated efforts, we failed to get an electronic pass — which is mandatory for movement during restrictions. We are somehow managing it, convincing the police — sometimes on false pretexts — or facing their wrath. Female police officers show compassion and let us go without offering much explanation, but male officers are ruthless,” Kaleem further alleged.
‘THERE WERE TWO OPTIONS — JUST VENT ANGER OR WORK ON GROUND’
“There was a deep despair all around — people were dying in absence of medical facilities or running from pillar to post in search of hospital beds, medicines, plasma, etc. The disastrous second wave of the pandemic left with with two option: either express anger against the government by writing on social media or do something meaningful on the ground to ease people’s sufferings,” said Neelambar Pathak, who goes by the Niranjan Pathak on Facebook, a resident of Arrah district in Bihar.
While he was part of a strong team of at least 25 people online to virtually help people across the country with hospital beds, medicines, oxygen cylinders, etc., he also focused to work on the ground in his home town with the help of his friend Rahul Pandey.
“I opted for the second option,” he said, explaining how he gathered financial and logistical support. “I wrote a Facebook post, informing my friends and acquaintances that I am willing to spend all my savings on relief work. Will you help me go ahead with this noble cause you can?,” he wrote and expressed gratitude to his friend not only from India but also from the United States, who helped him with funds and several other means.
The response of his post, he said, was quite encouraging as he received a donation of around Rs 1.84 lakh within 24 hours. Now, the challenge before him was what to do and how to do. To begin with, he procured six jumbo oxygen cylinders with a fraction of the sum he had received. As he updated his Facebook timeline with the information, he said he got eight telephone calls within minutes, seeking one cylinder each.
Gauging the fact that he would be able to help only eight individuals with the oxygen cylinders he had, he said he refused to give it away to anyone.
“I reached out to a doctor, asking him as to what would be the maximum number of patients who can be given oxygen support with eight cylinders. He told me if the hospital has a pipeline, at least six patients can be supplied oxygen per cylinder. So, donating the cylinders to a hospital would mean helping 48 patients. Therefore, I dropped the plan to provide oxygen cylinders to individual patients and decided to make operational a small hospital, which was temporarily shut down because it did not have doctors and nursing staff, and was not designated to treat COVID-19 patients,” Pathak told NewsClick.
He said he contacted the hospital owner and convinced him somehow to open the hospital. When he expressed his inability to go ahead as asked because he is not authorised, Pathak told him he would face all criminal cases if registered.
He finally agreed and the hospital with 18 beds, including eight beds in a “well-equipped” ICU, was made functional. However, the man owning this facility was a quack, Pathak said.
“So, I hired two MBBS doctors who were MDs (doctor of medicines) as well. Then ACs and clean bed sheets were also arranged for the hospital. When the hospital was made functional with all possible facilities, the next task ahead was to sustain its operation that needed regular flow of funds. Crowdfunding has its limitations, therefore, we finalised a minimum fee structure around Rs 3,500-4,000 per day for an ICU bed and Rs 2,000 everyday for a bed in the general ward. It was only for those who could afford it,” he said.
He added, “The poor patients were treated free of cost even to the extent of paying their transportation cost. Realising that people are willing to pay anything for their loved ones, we ensured no patient (either well-off or poor) are charged exorbitant fees. We arranged medicines, using our contacts and resources,” he said, giving details of his work.
But one such facility was not enough as it ran out of capacity in no time, it was then that he requested a third doctor to attend those patients who could be treated at home. The effort also picked pace and a good number of people began getting required medical support at their residence, he added.
“One challenge was waiting for us when we started door-to-door treatment. Several patients needed oxygen support, but we did not have enough cylinders. Again a divine help came and two angels — US-based Manisha Pathak and Delhi-based Manoj Dubey (both originally from Bihar) — sent me 13 oxygen concentrators in two different lots. The kept encouraging me not to stop as they will never let a fund crisis to happen. This is how, the work went on,” he said.
Pathak claimed over 150 patients returned home healthy from the hospital he was managing and over 100 people were successfully treated at home.
‘IT WAS AN EXCEPTIONAL TIME, WHICH DID NOT LET US SIT IDLE’
Following all possible medical aid (from providing oxygen cylinders to arranging hospital beds and medicines), Shadab Akhtar, a technical expert who deals with surgical equipment, also became active in the field by providing ration and cooked food to the people in need.
“It was an exceptional time, which did not let us sit idle. When my city (Darbhanga) was gasping for air, we took a plunge to address the crisis and began relief work by providing oxygen cylinders to patients admitted in hospitals and being treated at home. We could arrange only 19 cylinders (big and small) from suppliers, hospitals, abandoned ambulances and used them very tactically so that more and more number of people could be catered. We got unhindered refilling from two oxygen generation plants in the city who never let us down,” said the 27-year-old, adding that he also got immense support from the district administration in arranging beds in hospitals and medicines.
After the positivity rate declined, he along with his team of Prayas — an NGO, which he runs — switched to distribution of ration and food packets through community kitchens that he set up. Apart from daily distribution of dry ration enough for 10 days for a family with 5-6 members, he claimed he is feeding over 500 people daily through the community kitchens.
To address the financial woes of a large number of people that arose as an after effect of the lockdown, he added, he is also trying to provide a source of livelihood to those in need of temporary employment.
“These days, the government is giving people face masks. We secured the tender of its manufacturing. We go to villages where migrants workers have returned and their families are facing acute financial crisis and provide women who know stitching with raw materials. They get payment without any delay at the time of delivery. We pay then at the rate of Rs 3 per mask, while we get payment from the government at the rate of Rs 3.50 each. We make instant payment, though our over Rs 3 lakh is stuck in the bureaucratic process. This is easing them financially to an extent,” he said.
At a time when the entire nation, including Bihar, is fighting against the worst ever tide of the deadly virus amid the near total collapse of government machinery, these unsung heroes have emerged as the flag bearers of hope for the needy.