Amidst a scene of government inaction and rising Covid-19 cases in West Bengal, the Red Volunteers have taken the onus of restarting sanitisation drives, providing masks in marketplaces, and helping the relatives of Covid patients organise oxygen cylinders. They are also working to ensure that telemedicine help provided by different medical organisations, including the Association of Health Services Doctors, reach people.
As per the government data, the number of daily new infections in the state touched 15,889 with 57 deaths on April 25. Amongst those who dies was Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Kajal Sinha (59), the candidate from the Khardah assembly segment, who succumbed to the disease after being on ventilator for three days. Before this four other candidates from different parties had lost their lives due to the infection.
The daily infections in the state has more than doubled in less than 15 days as West Bengal had reported only 6,769 new cases on April 15. This has happened amid the eight-phased election in the state with massive political rallies only being banned recently by the Election Commission. With the steep rise in cases and the healthcare system being overwhelmed, the Red Volunteers have again hit the streets.
In the Rajarhaat-New Town area, Saptarshi Deb, who was a Red Volunteer during last year’s lockdown as well, was seen distributing mask among the people there. Deb and his fellow activists belonging to the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) had first started the initiative of reaching out to the needy during the lockdown period last year through telephone numbers provided on Whatsapp, Facebook and other social media platforms. This initiative later took the orgnanised shape of Red Volunteers in the New Kolkata Development Authority (NKDA) area and then more teams spread across the state.
“In the first phase, the need was different as lockdown was in place and we had to stand beside the families amidst the lockdown,” said Deb, who is also the Communist Party of India CPI(M) candidate in Rajarhat-New Town assembly segment.
Deb and other Red Volunteers of New Town are now busy building up a network through which vaccines, oxygen and life-saving drugs are easily available for the people of the area. Their efforts come as the health infrastructure of the super smart city, as areas under NKDA is known as, has turned out to be an abysmal failure.
Many who had been administered the first dose of the vaccine are not getting the second dose in time, he said, adding that there was a dearth of beds, oxygen, and santitisation drives. “For the time being, we have opened several service kiosks in New Town with information about oxygen suppliers list and vaccination helpdesks so that people can easily register on the Cowin app. A Blood camp is also on the anvil as during the next month, the vaccination drive for everyone over 18 years will mean an acute shortage of blood and plasma in the state because a vaccinated person cannot donate blood for the next 28 days,” Deb said.
Kaltan Dasgupta, a Red Volunteer leading the initiative in Kolkata district, told Newsclick, “We are also emphasising on our activists using PPE kits while coming in contact with Covid patients. Red Volunteers are also trying to build a network with the Durgapur Steel Plant for medical oxygen supply so that Covid-19 patients can be provided with oxygen at the earliest in the state.” He added that even though the government has stopped private handling of oxygen to curb hoarding, they are constantly getting SOS calls flagging the lack of oxygen for patients.
The areas in Jadavpur, which had started community kitchens during the lockdown period, are also keen on starting a centralised helpline and helpdesks to help the people affected due to “information blackout by the different government health units,” said Dhrubo Das, one of key organisers of the popular community kitchen in Jadavpur.
“The centralised enquiry system run by the government causes inordinate delay even in cases of serious Covid patients needing hospitalisation,” said a doctor associated with the public medical services in the state. “The initiative of the Red Volunteers is putting the right kind of pressure on the health network to perform,” he said .
Meanwhile, there is black-marketing going on regarding hospital beds in the state, claimed Sayandeep Mitra, state president of DYFI and CPI(M) candidate from Kamarhati, adding that this is happening while “patients are lying in footpaths.” He accused the central government of being a huge failure regarding health infrastructure and preparation for the crisis. “If 1% of the initiative it had shown to construct mandirs was reflected here then it would be a different story altogether,” Mitra told Newsclick.
It was in 2020 that the Left minded youth had come forward to stand beside the people of the state affected in the lockdown. “It was a rich , micro-level experience for almost all of them as they helped people fight the crisis,” said Kallol Majumdar CPI(M) Kolkata district secretary and a backer of the Red Volunteers in the state. He said that at the onset of the initiative, it was not clear to the youth participants what the requirement of the people were. “However, working for three months, they gained a lesson about the requirement of the people. Now at the beginning of the second wave, we cannot fathom what is coming in a few months. At this time, if under a decentralised structure, these volunteers can stand beside the needy, it will confer upon them a rich experience,” Majumdar said.