Kindness of strangers gives hope amid the horrors of Covid-19 in India

Auto rickshaw driver Mohammad Javed Khan in Bhopal converted his vehicle into an ambulance. A volunteer preparing meals, which are funded by donations, for the poor as well as virus patients at a gurdwara or Sikh temple in the Indian capital New Delh
A volunteer preparing meals, which are funded by donations, for the poor as well as virus patients at a gurdwara or Sikh temple in the Indian capital New Delhi. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Auto rickshaw driver Mohammad Javed Khan in Bhopal converted his vehicle into an ambulance. A volunteer preparing meals, which are funded by donations, for the poor as well as virus patients at a gurdwara or Sikh temple in the Indian capital New Delh
Auto rickshaw driver Mohammad Javed Khan in Bhopal converted his vehicle into an ambulance. PHOTO: AFP
Rishabh Varma (far right) holds his mother just after their arrival at the Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, near Delhi. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

BANGALORE/NEW DELHI - An out-of-breath woman trudges in, aided by two young men. The Covid-19 patient is teetering close to a collapse, not unlike India's health infrastructure in the ferocious second wave of the pandemic.

"I am dying. I am dying," she screams.

Her son wails for help: "Is there anyone?"

Just when it seemed all doors had been slammed shut, this family has found one ajar.

After being shunted from one hospital to another for days, they have finally come to a Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, near Delhi, desperate for a few hours of medical oxygen. And it does not let them down.

A volunteer calms the woman and gives her a face mask that is attached to an oxygen cylinder. Finally, she breathes with some ease.

For more than a week, this 24/7 drive-in oxygen camp set up by the non-profit Khalsa Help International at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, has been a lifesaver for thousands.

When all else fails, families flock here with critical patients for a few hours of reprieve as they continue their hunt for oxygen or a hospital bed.

Fitful coughs and plaintive wails rend the air here but, oddly enough, hope lingers as well.

"I am relieved somewhat after coming here," said Anshul, 28, as she used a newspaper to fan her Covid-positive father who lay on a cot at the camp on Wednesday (April 28) afternoon. They had been there for more than seven hours and her 61-year-old father's condition had stabilised after undergoing three rounds of oxygenation.

Nearby, a volunteer kept a close eye on cylinder gauges as he walked past a long row of patients breathing in oxygen under a cloth canopy. Another distributed water to families waiting in the 40-degree plus summer heat in north India.

Inside the gurdwara, others made calls to arrange oxygen cylinders from faraway places in Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.

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The Covid-19 crisis in India has seen volunteers coming together to help families of both the ill and the deceased in their moments of need. From a Sikh temple that provides much needed medical operation to volunteers to help to bury the dead.

Across the country, as anguished people struggle to keep their loved ones alive, they have found solace in the kindness of strangers.

Several ordinary men and women have become pandemic superheroes, helping battle not only the coronavirus but also the labyrinthine Indian bureaucracy.

An auto rickshaw driver in Bhopal sold his wife's jewellery to convert his vehicle into a makeshift ambulance.

Another person in Mumbai sold his SUV for 2.2 million rupees (S$39,500) to buy people oxygen cylinders.

In Varanasi, a 23-year-old labourer used his bike rigged to a wooden trolley as an ambulance to ferry sick people to hospital.

The generosity can be strikingly intimate, like when a lactating mother in Bangalore donated breast milk to a premature baby whose mother had died of Covid-19 last week.

Anshul, 28, fans her Covid-19 positive father at the Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, near Delhi. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA
Manisha Bashu (right) and her mother press the chest of her father, who is suffering from breathing problems, after he felt unconscious while receiving oxygen support at the temple. PHOTO: REUTERS

The country has come together in a crisis that has largely flattened class, caste and gender inequalities. Some would say citizen heroes had to emerge, as floundering governments and callous politicians left Indians to the mercy of the pandemic's ferocious second wave. But these hopeful stories dispel the miasma of despair enveloping India today.

As Indians see avoidable deaths - more than 3,000 a day now - and painful images, individuals and companies are donating, ranging from a few hundred rupees to millions. But it has taken a nation of teachers, shopkeepers, hoteliers, techies, students, local social workers, and homemakers to make the last-mile delivery of essential goods.

As calls for help ring out across social media, ordinary people are responding like their own family is in peril, arranging oxygen or life-saving drugs for those they have never met.

When unknown students in Rajkot handed Mrs Faizada Raheem eight tablets of a now-elusive drug called Decmax for her husband battling Covid-19 at home, she was shocked to see only 40 rupees on the pharmacy bill.

People with breathing problems receive oxygen support for free outside the Sikh temple in Ghaziabad. PHOTO: AFP
A Covid-19 patient lying on a rickshaw breathes with the help of oxygen provided by the Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, India. PHOTO: AFP

"It had taken three people three days to find this medicine in Bangalore, and speed-post it to me in Rajkot. I was expecting hiked prices, but they didn't even collect the money from me," said Mrs Raheem.

In many towns, an army of anonymous volunteers work their phones to verify and update public databases listing suppliers of critical drugs and oxygen. Hundreds of unnamed students call government helplines on behalf of sick and overwhelmed families.

People like Mr Srinivas B.V. from the Indian Youth Congress and Ms Charu Pragya of the BJP's youth wing have become household names for those who have exhausted all other avenues.

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When Mr Yoganandam in Gurgaon near Delhi lost his father to Covid-19 and desperately tweeted about his mother struggling in a hospital that was out of oxygen, some people tagged Mr Srinivas and others at 10.53pm on Friday.

By 1.49am, Mr Srinivas responded with photos of two of his volunteers outside the hospital. They were holding a jumbo oxygen cylinder. "So that the breathing doesn't stop," Mr Srinivas tweeted in Hindi.

With localised lockdowns restricting mobility, hunger has also returned as a threat for many daily wage workers.

"It is a completely ignored crisis this time," said Mr Ankit Gupta, 28, who along with some of his friends, has been distributing around 3,000 food packets and 200 dry ration kits every day in Delhi for the past two weeks. They buy these supplies using crowdsourced funds.

Volunteers from the Sikh temple have been working tirelessly to help thousands of people. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

Mr Gupta's own parents and sister who live in Bhopal are now showing classic symptoms of Covid-19. They have tested negative for the coronavirus but it is not enough to dispel his worries.

"I don't think I would have survived had I not been helping others, which gives me the energy to go on," said Mr Gupta.

Other home cooks like Ms Plaksha Aggarwal in Noida are delivering hot dal and rice meals to Covid patients isolated at home.

For those who don't survive the ordeal, there are Good Samaritans for the final goodbye too.

In Bangalore, a team called Mercy Angels has helped bury or cremate over 1,000 bodies from all communities during the pandemic. Driving around the city in three hearse-ambulances, about 10 volunteers pick the bodies up from homes or hospitals and drive them to designated Covid-19 crematoriums and graveyards.

"When someone dies of Covid, their families are either sick themselves or are quarantined. Some families are afraid to touch the body," said Mr Tanveer Ahmed, a corporate recruiter turned pandemic volunteer. His phone doesn't stop ringing with calls from bereaved families.

Dignified last rites are difficult to achieve when bodies line up for over 24 hours and grief-stricken and tired relatives wait their turn. Families struggle with Covid-19 protocols like social distancing and the sanitising required in crematoriums.

Often, volunteers from Mercy Angels in Bangalore have to lower the coffins or light the pyres of people who have died from Covid-19, as relatives may be unwell or too afraid. ST PHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN
Volunteer Tanveer Ahmed of Mercy Angels meets his children briefly during a long day of helping cremate and bury 10 people who died of Covid-19.. ST PHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN

The volunteers do their best to help. Often, they even lower the coffin or light the pyre on behalf of the relatives. As a wailing daughter threw herself on her dead father's body on April 29, Mr Tanveer gently lifted her off, and offered her gloves and a mask.

Volunteers do this at great risk to their own lives and those of their families. After his seventh burial in one day, Mr Ahmed stopped his ambulance for a minute by his house, to wave to his children from afar.

When his daughter ran towards him, he yelled, "Don't touch me!"

As he chatted with her from a safe distance, the expression on his face was partly hidden behind his N95 mask, but his eyes were all smiles.

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