Whether on bikes or autorickshaws, volunteers across India are turning up armed with oxygen cylinders and groceries to help fight the new wave of the coronavirus
By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, May 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For two long hours, T Ramya stood outside a government hospital in the southern Indian city of Chennai and watched helplessly as her uncle's condition deteriorated after he fell ill with COVID-19 like millions of others across the country.
Ramya had seen this situation unfold in recent news bulletins and knew her uncle needed oxygen, fast.
India's coronavirus deaths crossed a quarter million on Wednesday in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began, with overall cases surging past 23 million this week, according to health ministry data.
In an act of desperation, Ramya put her faith in an unknown autorickshaw service that delivered free oxygen cylinders to families in need, something she had read about in passing.
"We were losing hope," Ramya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The auto was a lifesaver."
To her surprise, the rider arrived within an hour after she called and supplied life-saving oxygen to Ramya's uncle, who eventually found a hospital bed.
From local cyclists delivering groceries to the elderly, to autorickshaws distributing oxygen to patients, grassroots volunteer groups have been cropping up across India to help tackle the new wave of the coronavirus.
HOUR OF NEED
Shortages of ambulances, hospital beds, drugs and oxygen supplies are crippling healthcare in much of the country of 1.3 billion, with the vast majority of Indians repeatedly calling inundated phone lines or carrying patients to emergency wards.
As a stopgap, Vasanthakumar Chandran, along with 10 friends and volunteers began fitting autorickshaws with oxygen cylinders earlier this month, responding to calls from desperate families and showing up at their hour of need.
What began as a temporary measure has now become a critical service.
"We are going to homes, parking outside crowded hospital gates and giving patients the much needed oxygen support for a few hours to stabilise them," said Chandran from the Kadamai Education and Social Welfare Trust, which funds the initiative.
"Even ambulances call our autos when they run out of oxygen. We conceived this for emergencies but did not dream that people would need it 24/7."
With several cities under lockdown, some local riders have also been volunteering their time to deliver groceries, medicine and meals to the elderly and families under quarantine.
One group of cyclists, Relief Riders, has expanded across eight cities including Mumbai and Bengaluru, and uses algorithms to match delivery requests with a nearby volunteer.
"In the last two weeks, we have added volunteers. In Bengaluru city alone, we have more than 200," said Sathya Sankaran, the organiser of Relief Riders and the “bicycle mayor” of Bengaluru city.
"We figured that shortages will ease if we can help people stay indoors and stay safe," said Sankaran, who also runs Urban Morph, a social enterprise that works to increase mobility in urban areas.
Sankaran said his volunteer cyclists are also tracking their rides to map the type of neighbourhood they visit and the spread of the delivery areas so they can plan their next steps.
"At present, the idea is to help as many as possible. But in the future, we want to be better prepared," he said.
In Chennai, Chandran is also trying to scale up his oxygen cylinders service. His solo operation now has three autorickshaw drivers and a logistics team - and demand is soaring.
In the past week, Chandran said he barely slept, spending every waking moment fielding distressed callers, coordinating with colleagues and ensuring an "oxygen auto" reaches the patient as soon as possible.
"We have limitations and it is difficult to say no to people desperate for help," said Chandran, a contractor who runs the voluntary operation from his office.
"We often park ourselves outside a patient's home, give them oxygen as per the doctor's instructions and wait for an ambulance to arrive. We are there for them."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Lin Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)