India’s medical oxygen shortage has become so dire that a Sikh house of worship began offering free breathing sessions with shared tanks to COVID-19 patients waiting for a hospital bed. (Image: AP)
For Harteerath Singh, Community Development Director, Hemkunt Foundation, death has been an everyday occurrence over the last few days. He is physically and mentally exhausted and so are the 150-plus volunteers of the foundation.
“It has been hard for my family, including many of whom have tested COVID-19 positive, and also all our volunteers. We are sleeping on an average three to four hours every day. We are sleep deprived, and mentally exhausted,” he says over phone, even as he missed 11 SOS calls in the meantime.
Singh himself contracted the virus twice and was tested negative last week.
His only coping mechanism, he explained, has been to tally the number of dead and those they were able to save as he ends the day, anywhere between 1 am to 3 am. “As long as people saved are more than those who died, I think we can keep this up,” he says.
He points out: “Because there is no coping mechanism for this, for me, it is now or never a situation. It is like `I can just save one more person’ - that is how my thinking is.”
The 10-year-old, not-for-profit Hemkunt Foundation, is one of the organisations that has been mobilizing oxygen supplies and distributing to COVID-19 positive people free of cost in the National Capital Region (NCR) and few other parts of India, including Mumbai.
The foundation with its strong network has been able to procure oxygen from across the state. “We have three volunteers in Punjab who are looking for oxygen cylinders. Similarly, we have people in South India looking for vendors who supply oxygen cylinders through the day. Thankfully we have a strong network so we are able to manage,” Singh explains, modestly.
Over the last couple of weeks, the organisation – named after Gurdwara Hemkunt Sahib in the Himalayas, one of the holiest shrines for Sikhs - has been working relentlessly to distribute oxygen cylinders for free. “We take about 13,000 calls per day across four mobile numbers. Barring two hours after 3 am, when our volunteers get a chance to close their eyes, the numbers are available through the day,” Singh said, particularly between 11 pm and 3 am.
This is in addition to the barrage of messages they get on their social media handles. As they work round the clock, most of them are sleeping in offices and haven’t had a decent meal in weeks. “Earlier, I had my first meal at 6 pm and, at times, at 9.30 pm. Because all of us are busy finding oxygen and arranging for transportation and logistics, who is there to cook food?” he questions.
However, there is only so much ground a not-for-profit organisation can cover. The organisation has restricted the supply of oxygen to 500 per region. They cover more than 10 regions in India, a majority of them in the NCR.
While the foundation has no plans to expand the network, as the situation stretches further, it might have to restrict itself, if donation falls and there is difficulty in procuring oxygen supplies.
Currently, the organisation is supported by celebrities and people by donations. Singh fears that the contributions might come down and they will have to cut down the number of cylinders they are able to distribute currently.
Supplying oxygen is just one of the problems volunteers like them face. The foundation has trouble transporting oxygen cylinders. According to Singh, despite the Centre’s directive that vehicles carrying oxygen cylinders not be stopped, there are concerns related to transport of cylinders. For instance, on April 25 volunteers carrying the cylinders were detained at the Bhiwadi Police Station in Rajasthan and were allowed to pass only after the intervention of senior officers.
Hemkunt Foundation also had to get its social media handle verified quickly as multiple fake handles came out of the blue.
Of course the foundation and its volunteer network are not alone. There are multiple individuals and organisations like the Indian Youth Congress under BV Srinivas, who have stepped in and are serving people around the clock.
The story of Singh and Srinivas are reflective of hundreds of healthcare workers and volunteers who are on ground, ensuring that help reaches the right person at the right time.
There are many individuals who have offered to run errands, cook food and deliver to those who have tested positive. Some of them have developed applications to curate the verified information scattered on Twitter to make it easier to find information online.
This is critical given that the second wave of the pandemic has wreaked havoc. On April 25, the country recorded 2,812 deaths with registered cases mounting to 3.52 lakh.
Patients in the National Capital Region, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are reeling due to acute shortage of oxygen. Microblogging platform Twitter is currently filled with people seeking help for oxygen cylinders and finding beds for their parents, family and friends as hospital after hospital has run short of the essential medicines, oxygen and beds.
These acute shortages were amplified when big hospital chains such as Fortis, Max and Gangaram announced that they are running out of medical oxygen and will have to let go of patients, which were later supplied.To donate to Hemkunt Foundation, which is distributing Oxygen Cylinders to COVID-19 patients only for free, click here.